As the march towards the 2014 USC Trojans football season hits less than a week, the dog days of summer fade into fall. Camps are buzzing around the country as they get into game mode for late August. This Fall not only provides a new season, but also a brand new format. The 16-year-old BCS is finally extinct and the first year of the College Football Playoff is upon us.
The playoffs will consist of the top four ranked teams in the country as selected by a 13-member selection committee. The committee will rank the top 25 teams weekly, starting in the ninth week. It will be interesting to see the variance, if any, between the AP Poll and the Selection Committee rankings as the season progresses. The Rose and Sugar bowls will host the semifinal games in the inaugural season, to be played on January 1, 2015. The semifinals will rotate annually between the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta, and Peach Bowls. The National Championship is slated for January 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Trojans come into the season with renewed hope and optimism after finally crossing the finish line on the NCAA’s biased and exorbitant sanctions that were doled out to decimate the program. The Trojans clock in at No. 15 in the AP Poll. USC won 10 games in two of the last four seasons when many predicted the program would be left for dead for a decade or more. There were many, including some inside the program, who tried to minimize expectations. The Trojans did not make excuses and they rebounded last season, overcoming four different head coaches and fielding less than 50 scholarship players on their way to a 10-4 finish.
Pat Haden wasted no time in naming Steve Sarkisian as the Trojans’ new head coach following a tough loss to UCLA in November. Sarkisian silenced critics and a lukewarm reception with a very strong recruiting class. He also nabbed new offensive line coach Tim Drevno from the San Francisco 49ers.
For the first time in school history, the Trojans will run a hurry up or “tempo” offense. Just as a reminder, Sarkisian inherited a Washington offense that ranked 116th in the country when he arrived in 2009, and took them to 62nd in his first year. He showed that he can be innovative, transitioning his offense in 2013 to an up-tempo, balanced attack that finished eighth nationally in total offense with 514 yards a game. They were 14th in rushing with 243 yards per game, and 31st in passing with 271 yards per game. Huskies running back Bishop Sankey rushed for 1,870 yards in 2013, including three games of over 200 yards. Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins won the John Mackey Award as the best tight end in the country.
Coach Sarkisian has made it clear that this is not a spread offense, but said it will play at a much faster clip. The belief is that over time he will be able to recruit better players and the goal is to get those players the most touches possible in a game. The difference will likely be an offensive play count in the 80’s compared to the 68.4 USC averaged last season, according to TeamRankings.com.
A second goal will be to use the entire field in attacking a defense. This will put pressure on the opposition and will create isolations matchups for talented playmakers.
The last benefit will be to condition USC’s defense to be prepared for the fast-paced offenses that are prevalent in college football today. Nine of the teams on USC’s 2014 schedule run a variation of a spread, read option offense and this will help prepare the defense mentally and physically to play against these teams.
USC’s defense will be led by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and his 3-4 defensive scheme. When Wilcox arrived joined Sarkisian at Washington, the Huskies’ improved in total defense from 105th in 2011 to 40th in 2012 and 35th in 2013. Their pass defense jumped 60 spots to 27th in 2012 and to 11th in 2013. Look for USC to play an aggressive style on defense with a lot of pressure from the front seven. The defense lost outside linebacker Jabari Ruffin and defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow for the season to knee injuries, which will challenge the Trojans’ depth.
USC currently has 66 healthy scholarship players in comparison to their competition, who can have up to 85. Though it will take time to build the numbers back up, they will compete with what they have and without excuses. There is renewed leadership emanating from the program, upperclassmen that are taking the time to show freshmen the way. This is vital because a number of true freshman will have contribute right away. Look for Cody Kessler to have a breakout season. He is comfortable with a no-huddle system and he will play with confidence. He is under the radar with the big name quarterbacks in the conference and nationally, but he is poised for a big year.
Returning starter Max Tuerk will move to center to anchor an offensive line featuring three new starters, including true freshman guard Toa Lobedahn. Mammoth guard Damien Mama might also get the starting nod in the opener as redshirt freshman Kahliel Rodgers is questionable with a knee sprain. Senior tight end Randall Telfer is poised for a big role in the offense and has shown strong leadership with his younger teammates.
The Trojans are deeper at wide receiver than they have been in years. Nelson Agholor will take the lead, but look for physical Darreus Rogers to complement him on the opposite side. True freshman John “Ju Ju” Smith is ready to make an impact this season and one of the surprises of camp has been the sure-handed Ajene Harris, who will get a good look in the slot formation in multiple-receiver sets. Steven Mitchell is healthy, as is George Farmer. Victor Blackwell adds depth and experience.
The running game will have a dangerous trio with Javorious “Buck” Allen, Tre Madden, and Justin Davis. Look for 270-pound all-purpose tank Soma Vainuku to contribute in the backfield and in double-tight formations.
The defense will be led by returning All-American, big Leonard Williams up front. Senior linebacker Hayes Pullard is the heart and soul of the defense. Senior Josh Shaw is a lock down corner and Su’a Cravens will play a hybrid position of safety and linebacker depending on the package. Shaw is an unselfish leader who has always put the team first and he has been mentoring some of the younger defensive backs.
Look for true freshman Adoree Jackson to be on field either on defense, special teams, or both. Sooner than later, look for Jackson to see some playing time on offense as well. Coach Sarkisian will get the ball in his hands. On special teams, kicker Andre Heidari is healthy and should return to form with more consistency.
The college football season is almost here. There is a new format in determining the champion at long last. The Trojans begin a new era in 2014 with a new head coach, new staff, and many new players that will be coming together to write their own chapter in USC football history. There are no more sanctions, the NCAA did not win, and the Trojans are coming!
Shane Foley is a former USC Quarterback (1986-1990) and freelance writer for LA Sports Hub. Read more of Shane’s thoughts on the USC Trojans, Pac-12 Football, and Los Angeles area sports at ShaneFoley.com.