2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Last year was a strange and tumultuous one for USC. Entering the campaign, the Trojans were once again expected to be a strong team, although not as strong as their No. 1 overall ranking the previous preseason, but once again they underachieved.
After besting Hawaii, 30-13, in the opener, the Trojans failed to get anything going on offense in a 10-7 loss to Washington State. Then, following wins over Boston College and Utah State, they fell yet again in an embarrassing 62-41 final at Arizona State.
That was the final straw for the Lane Kiffin era, as the highly publicized head coach was finally let go after failing to live up to the expectations that came with his hiring.
Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron took over on an interim basis and did a rather solid job. The Trojans went 7-2 under Orgeron, including a 45-20 victory over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Despite the admirable efforts of Orgeron, the Trojans decided to go in a different direction when hiring a permanent replacement for Kiffin. They settled on a coach in their own conference, luring Steve Sarkisian away from Washington.
He will be given some slack in his first season, but the Trojan alum will eventually feel the heat if the team doesn't show at least some improvement.
OFFENSE: During Pac-12 media event, Sarkisian made it clear who would be running his offense at USC.
"Cody Kessler is our starting quarterback," Sarkisian said. "Cody���s a great player. You look at the second half of last season, and I thought he played extremely well."
Kessler certainly improved as the season went one, finishing the 2013 campaign off with a season-high 345 yards and four scores against Fresno State. In all, he just missed the 3,000-yard mark, while throwing for 20 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions. Sarkisian is known as a quarterback mentor, having been the quarterbacks coach at USC for several years before taking the head coaching job at Washington. He should be able to push Kessler to even greater heights in his junior season.
If Kessler is going to put himself in the same category as Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, he will need Nelson Agholor to build on his stellar sophomore season. Although Marqise Lee was defending his Biletnikoff Award win in 2013, Agholor ended up being the team's top target, finishing with a team-high 918 yards and 6 touchdowns on 56 receptions. Agholor is now the unquestioned No. 1 option. The rest of the wideouts are a bit inexperienced.
There is depth at running back, which should help alleviate some of the stress on Kessler. Javorius Allen (785 yards, 14 TDs) and Tre Madden (703 yards, 3 TDs) are both back and healthy.
The benefits of an experienced offensive line cannot be understated and USC has a decent trio to build around in guard Aundrey Walker, tackle Chad Wheeler and center Max Tuerk. However, the group is rather young, as are the candidates that will work into the rest of the rotation.
While Sarkisian is dealing with a roster that he did not build, expect him to still push the tempo like he did at Washington. Last season, the Huskies ranked 13th in the country in total offense (499.3 ypg). Shooting for that type of production is an exciting prospect for a USC team that averaged nearly 100 yards less per game.
DEFENSE: Although Sarkisian is an offensive-minded coach, he may need to lean heavily on his defense in his first year, considering the bulk of the team's talent resides on that side of the ball.
Defensive tackle Leonard Williams is an absolute monster in the trenches. He was second on the team in tackles last season (74), while racking up 13.5 stops for loss and 6.0 sacks. J.R. Tavai (56 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks) will help keep the pressure on opposing backfields as well. Antwaun Woods played in 13 games last season, but he should see an even bigger role this time around.
All three starting linebackers are back from last year's unit, which ranked among the top-20 nationally in scoring (21.2 ppg), rushing (120.6 ypg) and total defense (335.2 ypg). Hayes Pullard is the heartbeat of the defense, coming off a season in which he led the team in tackles (94). He also had a pick and 6 pass breakups. Jabari Ruffin (22 tackles) and Lamar Dawson (35 tackles) both have starting experience as well.
Sarkisian is obviously aware of how much skill he has to work with at the linebacker and defensive line spots.
"I love our front seven. I think our front seven is the strength of our football team," Sarkisian said. "Really good football teams are good up front on defense, and we have a chance to be that."
Josh Shaw and Kevon Seymour give the Trojans solid defenders to deal with the talented receivers that reside in the Pac-12. Shaw was third on the team with 67 tackles last season, while adding 4 interceptions. Seymour tallied 48 stops and a pick of his own. Su'a Cravens is an exceptional playmaker at safety. He tallied 52 tackles and matched Shaw in interceptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Andre Heidari missed a few too many field goal attempts last season, going 15-of-22, including a 3-of-8 effort from beyond 40 yards. He will need to be more consistent as a senior. Punter Kris Albarado could also use some improvement on his 37.1 yards per punt average.
Agholor is a fantastic return man, scoring a pair of touchdowns on punt returns and totaling more than 500 return yards last season.
OUTLOOK: It would be a mistake to expect Sarkisian to solve all that plagued USC these last few seasons and push them into the Pac-12 title hunt in his first year. Still, the Trojans have enough talent to be a more consistent threat week in and week out.
They get an early test of just how ready they are, as a trip to Stanford is the second game on the schedule. USC doesn't have to deal with Oregon at all this year, but that doesn't make up for a tough end of the season, which features battles with rivals UCLA and Notre Dame.
Williams and Pullard will ensure that the Trojans are never too far behind but it will fall on Kessler to adapt to a more up-tempo offense and make sure they are never behind at all. If both sides live up to their end of the bargain, the first year of the Sarkisian era could be a very good one.