Editor’s note: This is the latest in a six-week series that looks at each of Arizona’s 12 football opponents this year. Today, we assess USC. Up next: Washington State on Monday.
First, USC fans targeted Jon Gruden. Then they moved on to Jack Del Rio, Jeff Fisher and James Franklin. Heck, at one point, Vince Lombardi’s name might have even come up.
But once expectations went from unrealistic to realistic, the Trojans, who fired coach Lane Kiffin during the 2013 season — got their guy.
The name — Steve Sarkisian — certainly didn’t pack the punch of the others.
The former USC assistant went 34-29 as head coach of Washington and was viewed by many as an underachiever in his final couple of seasons. That didn’t scare USC athletic director Pat Haden.
He hired Sarkisian in December and gave him the keys to one of the country’s most prestigious programs. Now it’s time to see what he can do. The coach finished off Kiffin’s recruiting class strong and added two five-star recruits — Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith — who could have gone anywhere.
Now it’s time to see if Haden knew something most of us didn’t know or if Sarkisian is in over his head.
The Trojans open their season Aug. 30 against Fresno State and visit Tucson in October.
The lowdown on the Trojans:
When: Saturday, Oct. 11
Where: Arizona Stadium
Last year’s record: 10-4
Projections: USC is close to regaining its status as a national title contender every year. That’s the general thought with the 2014 season approaching.
Phil Steele ranked USC 11th in the country and picked the Trojans to finish second in the Pac-12 South behind UCLA. Steele, like most, is high on USC’s defense. Steele wrote: “They say defense wins championships, and if that is the case, USC has a great shot at the Pac-12.”
The Sporting News ranked USC 16th and likes the talent the Trojans have on defense, but questions their depth. Lindy’s ranked USC 16th.
Three names to know
DT Leonard Williams: Williams has a shot to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. The 6-foot-5-inch, 290-pound tackle had 64 tackles and eight sacks last season as a sophomore and has all the physical tools that make NFL scouts drool. The Daytona Beach, Florida, native was the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman Player of the Year in 2012 and was a first-team All-American last season.
WR Nelson Agholor: Marqise Lee was supposed to be the headliner at wide receiver last season, but it turned out to be Agholor. He had 56 catches for 918 yards and six touchdowns. He outgained Lee by more than 100 yards. Agholor will be the go-to guy this year for the Trojans and will have to deal with more attention from opposing defenses.
S Su’a Cravens: Cravens was one of the best true freshmen in the country last year. He started 13 of 14 games and had 52 tackles and four interceptions. He will be the leader of a talented secondary this season and offenses will look to stay away from him as much as possible.
Three numbers to know
2,968: Quarterback Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards last season in his first year as a starter and will be back this year with some more experience.
16: The Trojans return 16 starters from last year’s 10-4 team.
44: USC is 44-14 on the road the past 10 years, but lost to Arizona on its last trip to Tucson in 2012.
How they’re different
The Trojans are more settled as a program. Despite the 10-4 campaign last year, the season was all about turmoil and adversity from Day 1. No one expected coach Lane Kiffin to make it through the year, and he didn’t. He was fired after the fifth game of the season.
Ed Orgeron took over and rallied the team, and the Trojans won six of their final eight regular-season games.
After the year, Sarkisian took over, and with him came stability. He retained offensive coordinator Clay Helton and brought defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox with him from Washington. Recruiting has picked up, and there is far less panic in Los Angeles these days.