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Tuesday, June 18, 2013
USC future power rankings

By Johnny Curren

The 2012 season was an undeniably disappointing one for USC. From preseason No. 1 to a 7-6 record and a Hyundai Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. With an unsettled quarterback situation and a coach on the hot seat, there are plenty of questions about the Trojans. But it's still USC, with a storied history, a stockpile of talented skill players and some of the best recruiters in the country.

So despite the uncertainty, USC is No. 25 in the inaugural college football future power rankings. Here's one thing that could propel the Trojans even higher and one thing that could knock them out of the rankings over the next three years.

Dion Bailey
USC will need to return to a physical brand of football to thrive in the next three years.
The Trojans will rise if: The physicality is back

One of the major traits of the Trojans during the program’s magical run under former coach Pete Carroll was the physical brand of play that his teams consistently displayed -- during games and practice. It’s an integral element that had been noticeably lacking over the past two years, due in part to the limited roster numbers that USC has been forced to deal with because of NCAA sanctions.

With the program reaching a recent low point with a 2012 campaign that saw the Trojans finish with a record of 7-6, however, current coach Lane Kiffin realized a drastic change was needed this spring. And so, the shoulder pads were popping and the big hits were back in full effect on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field as the Trojans went through a slate of what were easily the most physical string of workouts in the Kiffin era -- and the results, both defensively and offensively, were dramatic.

On defense, a unit that ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in average total yards per game (394.0) appeared to improve by leaps and bounds in terms of their tackling ability, while attacking the line of scrimmage and swarming to the ball with renewed enthusiasm under the direction of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his 5-2 scheme.

Offensively, a completely new mindset took shape, particularly in regard to a rushing attack that generated just 150.6 yards rushing per game last season – the No. 7 mark in the conference. The offensive line played with a greater level of aggression, as did a much deeper and more talented tailback corps. With what these two units showed, there’s reason to believe the Trojans just might have the potential to return to a more physical style of play in the coming years.

The Trojans will fall if: The sanctions continue to wreak havoc

While the Trojans were able to somewhat mask the effect of NCAA sanctions handed down during Kiffin’s first year on campus, their negative impact has been hard to ignore, particularly during last season. And the worst part is they aren’t over yet. With the Trojans restricted from fielding a complete roster of 85 scholarship players until the 2015 season, and unable to sign a full recruiting class until February of the same year, there’s the potential for things to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

The sanctions have hit USC's depth the hardest. With their numbers dipping into the sixties, the Trojans simply don’t possess the bodies at each position that they did under Carroll and injuries, both to starters and role players, have had a profound impact.

For evidence, look no further than what has developed at wide receiver where, with both George Farmer and Steven Mitchell now sidelined for the year with torn ACLs, the unit is down to just five scholarship players. With a coach like Kiffin, who loves to air it out, that’s certainly significant.

Likewise, the Trojans have been hindered in the recruiting game, with the coaching staff limited in how many players they can offer and ultimately take. They’ve missed out on more than their fair share of prospects -- some of whom have gone to Pac-12 rivals who were happy to take advantage of the situation.

For the Trojans to overcome the effects of the penalties, it’s absolutely vital that, first and foremost, they stay healthy. If they do that, they certainly still have the players capable of returning USC to its winning ways, which will in turn attract those blue-chip recruits.