Do not let negative views of Lane Kiffin cloud your view of where USC is and where it can be, and do not let the ambivalent response to its new coaching choice fool you, either. For all of Kiffin's faults as a head coach, and despite the NCAA sanctions that have cut down on the Trojans' scholarship players, a stacked cupboard was left in place for new coach Steve Sarkisian.
Not only is the lineup in place, but Sarkisian is fully equipped to take advantage of it this fall and make USC a Pac-12 frontrunner.
Sarkisian was hired from Washington to allow USC to move on from the troubled Kiffin era while still making a second attempt at recapturing the glory days of the Pete Carroll era last decade. The 39-year-old Kiffin was on Carroll's staff from 2001-06, spending the last two years as offensive coordinator. The 40-year-old Sarkisian was there from 2005-08, replacing Kiffin as coordinator for his final two years before taking the reins at Washington.
There are two crucial differences, though: Sarkisian is not Kiffin, for one, bringing a more relaxed, fun atmosphere to USC -- Josh Shaw drama aside. Two, USC's throwback to a Carroll disciple, who called the plays for the Mark Sanchez-led unit that went 23-3 and won two Rose Bowls, features a change-of-pace this time around. By the time he left Washington, Sarkisian had embraced the suddenly thriving hurry-up, no-huddle, and instead of sticking with USC's no-frills, power-football roots that he was a part of, Sarkisian has changed the USC approach to offense. Tailback U can still run, of course, but it's not the methodical team that lined up in the I-formation and beat you, knowing it had more talent. It's now a combination of both new and old, using highly regarded recruits to impose their will by moving faster and getting more opportunities to make plays.
As always, one game is just one game, and USC's Week 1 opponent was only a rebuilding Fresno State with a suspect defense. Nevertheless, despite playing in a new system, USC looked like a focused team already clicking on all cylinders in a 52-13 win. The result couldn't have been drawn up much better. Yes, we've seen this one before, as USC smoked the Bulldogs 45-20 in the last game it played last December in the Las Vegas Bowl, but that doesn't take away much from how confident and sharp the Trojans looked on Saturday. Despite a week of turmoil, from Josh Shaw to Anthony Brown, USC appeared unbothered by the controversy, and instead was a team that looked ready to move forward and play, embracing its new system.
Obviously, that's important right now, because there are no FCS teams to beat up on for this USC team: On Saturday afternoon, USC visits sudden perennial Pac-12 frontrunner Stanford in a crucial early conference matchup that could play a big role in both division races. USC's somewhat favorable schedule allows it to avoid Oregon and Washington from the North in the regular season, meaning this is easily its biggest cross-division test, while it's also an important home test for Stanford, which will go on to face a brutal road schedule (Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, California, UCLA). The loser is off to a 0-1 start in the league, and given the strength of the Pac-12, that's not a hole anyone wants to be in.
To avoid falling into that hole, USC will try to out-run its problems. Aside from glaring depth issues because of the scholarship restrictions, the main problem is the offensive line. Last season, the Trojans ranked 104th in offensive sack percentage and had mixed results on the ground until the underrated Javorius Allen took control in the second half of the season. He rushed for at least 123 yards in four of USC's last five regular season games. The game he didn't? His 16 carries for 26 yards as he ran into the Stanford brick wall, in a game that USC actually won 20-17 thanks to three Cardinal turnovers and a solid game from overlooked quarterback Cody Kessler (who underwent a toe procedure on Tuesday but is expected to play against Stanford).
By spreading the field more and pushing the tempo to keep defenses from substituting, USC can keep defenses off balance and take pressure off the line by getting the ball out quickly to Kessler's talented receiving corps that features All-America candidate Nelson Agholor, plus junior George Farmer, sophomore Darreus Rogers and star true freshman JuJu Smith (who debuted with 123 yards on four catches), among others -- all highly regarded threats who can make plays after the catch. Even in running 105 plays on Saturday, Kessler wasn't sacked once.
Whereas the Trojans lacked an identity under Kiffin, Sarkisian -- while hardly perfect at Washington -- brings a clearer vision to USC and has the talent to realize it. Kessler is a solid, accurate timing-and-rhythm passer, and allowing him to push the tempo and keep defenses on their heels makes it easier for Sarkisian to put him in position to exploit mismatches, which come often given the surrounding talent he has to work with. After all, Kiffin could recruit, hauling in four top-12 classes, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, despite the scholarship restrictions.
"Last year, it was more run a play, everyone kind of talk about it, figure it out," Kessler told reporters at the beginning of spring practice. "This was just, 'Go.'"
And that's exactly what we saw on Saturday.
Last year, Sarkisian's Washington team ran 12 more plays per game than USC, which never went higher than 75. Washington averaged 78, and in the opener against Fresno State, USC set a Pac-12 record with 105 plays. It amassed 701 yards with those opportunities, averaging a solid 6.68 yards per play as Kessler threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns and Allen ran 22 times for 133 yards and a touchdown. It's not hard to figure out: More plays equals more opportunities for talented players to exploit mismatches and make big plays. And spreading the field more and using more shotgun doesn't mean the Trojans won't be physical running the football, either: Allen is a talented workhorse, and few players grinded out more yards last season than Sarkisian's tailback, Bishop Sankey. It's old-school USC football with a 2010s spin.
The worry is that more plays also hurts a team with depth questions, but it's a risk USC is willing to take. It also makes Saturday's showdown between the No. 14 Trojans and No. 13 Cardinal even more interesting. Out West, Stanford is one of the last few teams resisting modern spread/tempo revolutions. It embraces power football, shortening games with fewer plays and throwing as many offensive linemen as it can at various situations. Last year, Stanford and USC ran a total of 124 plays when they played each other. The styles matched, and that was that. Now, USC is coming off a game in which 174 plays were ran. The Trojans are still physical -- and still capable of handling power football on defense, led by Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard -- but with that different twist.
Obviously, USC isn't going to run 105 plays every week, or even close to that. The better guess is more in the 78-80 range that Washington hit last season, especially in a matchup with Stanford. The Cardinal, of course, has figured out as well as anyone how to beat tempo, frustrating Oregon in wins two years in a row. But this is a different type of challenge, as USC is still capable of lining up and matching Stanford's physicality on defense.
It might not be enough to win at Stanford, but, then again, a weaker Trojans team beat the Cardinal last year. Either way, the result on Saturday likely won't define the season. If USC stays healthy, then it has the talent to match up with just about anyone in the country.
It's playing loose and confident, at least showing some signs of the USC that became so dominant 10 years ago. It's just doing it more quickly.