USC Trojans: Lane Kiffin

It’s not Vegas, baby. But Manhattan Beach will do.

Actor Vince Vaughn has purchased former USC coach Lane Kiffin’s Manhattan Beach house for $6.5 million, according to the L.A. Times.

The 7,308-square-foot-property is a Craftsman-style home that was built in 2002. (Full disclosure, I didn’t know what craftsman style was. I had to look it up). The six-bedroom, seven-bathroom house sits on a half-acre lot and has a swimming pool/spa, outdoor kitchen and guesthouse.

Kiffin was fired five games into the 2013 season and has since been hired as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. He was 28-15 in three-plus seasons with the Trojans, including a 10-2 record in 2011. Chances are, Kiffin didn’t get to spend much time enjoying the spoils and amenities of the property. He regularly spent his nights sleeping in his office. So far, it sounds like he's doing well in Tuscaloosa.

No word yet on whether Vaughn will be installing a regulation dodgeball court. But I think we can all agree that would be so money.

Find some time for the defense

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
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The first practice was on speed dial. The tempo was frenetic. The energy was palpable.

The Steve Sarkisian Era opened in a blur with the new head coach happily immersed in the middle of his revolutionary -- for USC, at least -- no-huddle offense, calling the plays, communicating with his quarterbacks and carefully positioning his running backs and receivers.

It was a happy, upbeat afternoon full of unbridled hope and surging optimism.

And while this is not meant to deflate anything that is just starting out and beginning to build, if Sarkisian wants to succeed where his predecessor failed, he needs to understand one major facet of the job that Lane Kiffin never grasped.

He needs to spend at least a portion of his practice time with the defense.

Granted, it was just one practice, but the truth is he didn’t do much of that on Tuesday. He is an offense-oriented coach, and it is understandable. His priority is on that side of the ball. Moreover, he trusts the talented new coordinator he brought with him from Washington, Justin Wilcox, to take care of the defense.

But to many of those USC fans who suffered through the Kiffin regime, that tendency is more than a little scary. They watched Kiffin spend all his time at practice with the offense, rarely, if ever, wandering down to observe a defensive drill. They saw him during games staring at his now infamous play card, even while his team was desperately trying to stop an opposing offense. They would see him talking to a quarterback or a wideout but never to a linebacker or safety.

Whatever else you thought of him, there was no denying that Kiffin was a one-dimensional coach.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian talks with USC quarterback Cody Kessler at practice.
Sarkisian must be careful not to fall into that same trap.

The great Trojan coaches of the past never did. John McKay was famous for developing Tailback U, but the rock-solid foundation of his teams was always a ferocious defense. Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis and Co. were electrifying, but so was The Wild Bunch.

It was the same with John Robinson, who preached a strong, power-running game while making sure there were guys like Ronnie Lott, Chip Banks and Joey Browner to attend to the less-glamorous side.

And then, of course, there was Pete Carroll, who was a defensive guy first and foremost, although he did manage to recruit plenty of athletes like Matt Leinart, Mike Williams and Reggie Bush to light up scoreboards around the country.

The point is, the coaches who have been overwhelmingly successful in college football are those who have taken equal interest in offense and defense.

Now, this is not to say Sarkisian won’t do that. Maybe he will. But as a noted offensive guru and, like Kiffin, a coach who refuses to give up the play-calling duties, it definitely is more difficult. You naturally become more attached to that facet of the job.

Based on his time in Washington, the evidence is that Sarkisian definitely has room for improvement in that area. In his first couple of seasons with the Huskies, while the team’s offense and overall record were better, the defense was deplorable. In 2011, Washington finished 105th or lower nationally in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense.

Once he brought in Wilcox, those numbers changed dramatically. By 2013, Washington was in the top 35 in scoring defense and 11th in pass defense.

But while Sarkisian seems to have found the right defensive coordinator, he also has to show he is not just there to delegate on defense. Make no mistake, the players will know.

One of the main reasons Ed Orgeron was so warmly embraced in his time as interim head coach a year ago is that the kids saw how involved he was on both sides of the ball. When Dion Bailey or Devon Kennard made a big, rally-killing play on defense, Orgeron wasn’t standing 10 yards down the sideline studying his next play-calling options. He was right there, cheering and enthusiastically slapping them on the backs.

Again, it is way too early to predict precisely what kind of coach Sarkisian will be for the Trojans. And one practice is far too soon to evaluate his methods.

But the warning signs are there, and if he’s as smart as Pat Haden, J.K. McKay and others seem to think he is, Sarkisian will not only be aware of them, he will do something about them.

Remember, Sark, in your rush to become the next great coach at USC, the mantra is really simple:

Defense matters.
From now until fall practice, first-year USC Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian will be making decisions that not only affect his team and program but the general perception of the proceedings. Here’s a list of 10 items that Sark has addressed or will address in the coming months.

Spring practice viewing: Talk about a no-brainer and public relations bonanza. It appears Sark has made the decision to allow fans to watch spring ball. Viewing figures to be from atop Dedeaux Field, which to be quite honest, is probably a better viewing spot than on the sidelines. From Dedeaux Field, fans can get a better view of the offensive and defensive linemen doing individual battle, and you can also get a “50-yard-line ” vantage point.

Sark’s decision: Open practices.

Coliseum scrimmages: Sarkisian also has indicated that the public is welcome to spring scrimmages in the Coliseum. Saturday practices in the Coliseum make for a warm, fuzzy and cardinal and gold football day. And, of course, there is the final culmination of spring ball with the annual USC spring game on April 19 in the Trojans’ famous venue. Allowing the public into the Coliseum for a Saturday practice is another public relations windfall.

Sark’s decision: Open Coliseum scrimmages.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsWill Steve Sarkisian make quick changes to how the USC football program works?
Spring blocking and tackling: With Sarkisian saying 50 bodies or so will be able to fully participate in spring ball, the coach’s decision appears to err on the side of caution when it comes to measured hitting, tackling, and live scrimmaging. In particular, this spring is about learning new systems, formations and player evaluations. However, no major hitting or intense scrimmaging does impede in complete player evaluations.

Sark’s decision: Reduced hitting and scrimmaging.

Fall blocking and tackling: Sark has already indicated he is going to check with NFL teams on how they deal with hitting and scrimmaging with a small roster. Wait a minute, didn’t Sarkisian coach in the NFL and didn’t he see how lack of hitting hurt Lane Kiffin’s Trojans teams on both sides of the ball? Astute Trojans football fans will keep an eye on Sarkisian’s fall practice decision and probably compare the methodology to that of former interim head coach Ed Orgeron’s last season.

Sark’s decision: To be determined.

The Rising Stars Camp: This two-day, prep evaluation camp is the big one in late June in which the best of the best high school players -- locally and from out-of-state -- show their stuff on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Field. Because of the NCAA sanctions -- or so we are told -- the public and the media have been barred from attending. Will that change with the NCAA sanctions being completed in early June and what will the decision be if it is left up to Sarkisian?

Sark’s decision: To be determined.

Fall practice times: It’s a long way off, but practice times in the fall might return to those dreadful early morning sessions, which proved under Kiffin to be ill advised. The team’s GPA went down when practices were held in the early morning. One wonders if athletic director Pat Haden will have any input on Sarkisian’s eventual decision, especially given the fact Haden is very sensitive to academic issues. There is no question that returning players who have experienced both early morning and late afternoon practice have an opinion. Would Sarkisian dare take a team vote on this decision?

Sark’s decision: To be determined.

Credibility: How will the new relationships be between coaches and players once they hit the practice field? Has Sarkisian assembled a coaching staff that will make the returning Trojans forget about last season’s staff? With respected assistant coaches Orgeron, Clancy Pendergast, Tommie Robinson, and John Baxter gone, has Sarkisian put together a staff that can quickly overcome the loss of those respected coaches? Maybe the answers won’t come until the fall, but spring is a beginning.

Sark’s decisions: The head coach is pleased with his new staff, especially coming off a terrific recruiting effort for the class of 2014 and progress already made for the class of 2015.

Uniforms: Well, here is one item that apparently won’t need to be addressed. From his introductory news conference, Sarkisian made his preference clear. Unlike Kiffin, Sark understands the USC “look,” which means everything to the fan base and tradition.

Sark’s decision: No uniform changes.

Media relations: It appears that beginning with the first actual game week, the media will be ushered out of practice once game planning is being implemented. Honestly, Pete Carroll never worried about what the press saw. In fact, he even said that most of the press wouldn’t even understand what they were watching. Kiffin, of course, was understandably paranoid with media, and eventually didn’t let media into practice. Obviously, Kiffin closing practices didn’t help in the Coliseum loss last season to Washington State loss and the trouncing by ASU in Tempe. The reality is that games are not won or lost by the media watching practice. Interim head coaches Orgeron and Clay Helton opened practice up completely to the media -- including injury reports -- and you see how that turned out.

Sark’s decision: As of the moment, restricted media access during the season.

The Jackson factor: Depending on who you are listening to, five-star freshman DB/WR Adoree' Jackson will either be an offensive player who plays occasionally on defense or a defensive player who occasionally plays offense. Sarkisian says defense first, and Jackson seems to say he’ll play defense but will be part of selected offensive packages.

Sark’s decision: Jackson begins on defense, but there are possibilities on offense.

Q&A: USC coach Steve Sarkisian

February, 13, 2014
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There were some skeptical raised eyebrows when USC hired Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, but a strong performance on national signing day and the resulting highly rated recruiting class has engendered hope and enthusiasm now among the Trojans faithful.

Sarkisian signed the No. 1 class in the Pac-12, despite scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, and next year those limitations will be gone. Now, however, the focus turns to the football part of football, with spring practices set to begin March 11. Sarkisian has a team coming back that figures to be nationally ranked and in the thick of the Pac-12 South Division race, even with only 70 scholarship players.

With his recruiting class signed and sealed, it seemed like a good time to check in with Sarkisian and see what's on his immediate horizon.

Have you settled in in Los Angeles yet, house and family all together?

Steve Sarkisian: The family is here. We are all together. We have not gotten a house yet. I don't think you ever settle down in Year 1. I think Year 1 on a job, there is always a lot of moving parts. I say jokingly, when you take a new job it's like somebody opened up a puzzle box and dumped all the pieces on the ground and you start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I don't think you do that in a couple of months. That takes about a year to put all the pieces to the puzzle together. But it has been a really efficient couple of months so far on the job.

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AP Photo/Jae C. HongUSC coach Steve Sarkisian is shifting gears from recruiting to spring practice.
You going to miss taking a boat to the office, as you could at Washington?

Sarkisian: Quite honestly, I will. I will miss that. That was a unique treat there in Seattle. But I get to go to the Pacific Ocean now, so that's pretty cool.

What was the general message during recruiting? How did you sell USC under you and your coaching staff?

Sarkisian: First of all, USC is a tremendous product. We have a product where we get to go into any household, whether that be in Southern California or anywhere around the country, that has had amazing football accolades for decades. It's a tremendous university. Our president was just mentioning there were 51,000 applicants this past year for 2,700 spots for the freshman class. It's an unbelievable place that way. But also there is the opportunity to come and play early. We'll open up fall camp this year with 70 scholarship players, and that's if everybody is healthy. So there's an opportunity for these guys to come in and compete and compete early and to be on the forefront of something we think is going to be really special. For this university to withstand what they were able to withstand with those sanctions, winning 10 games two out of the past three years, I think is tremendous. And now, here we go, we get to take off. We signed 19 players in this year's class. We get to sign 25 next year. That's 44 new players in a 12-month span. I think we're about to take off again. That's what this school has done historically over decades. They've had tremendous runs and I think we are poised for another great one.

What's on the top of your to-do list now?

Sarkisian: Right now we're implementing our schemes on offense, defense and special teams. We're trying to get all the coaches settled in, one, with their families with housing all all that -- they've been hitting it pretty good on the road. But the biggest thing is getting our schemes implemented as a staff. We've got new staff members on both sides of the ball. Then there's really getting to know our players who are in the midst of an offseason conditioning program right now. Getting to know them, their body types, their movements, how they fit in our schemes. And then we're preparing for spring practice, which is coming pretty quickly here in a month on March 11.

Let's talk quarterbacks. Cody Kessler is a returning starter who played well over the second half of the season, but Max Browne is a talented guy. How does that position stand right now, wide open or is the job Kessler's to lose?

[+] EnlargeMax Browne
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMax Browne will get his shot this spring to try to unseat Cody Kessler.
Sarkisian: We're going to let these guys compete like crazy. Just like we are with every other position on our roster. The thing I promised the team on my first day on the job is there would be a clean slate for everybody. Guys are going to get an opportunity to compete. I think it's a great opportunity for Max to feel like there's a crack in the door and let's see how far he can take it. I think it's a unique opportunity for Cody to continue to improve because Max is going to give him all he's got. If that's the case, that's when you play really good football. That's when you get pushed to the highest levels. I know those two guys are going to compete like crazy, along with Jalen Greene, a kid we got mid-year who I have high aspirations for. I think for everybody on our roster, with a clean slate on which to compete, is going to be special for everybody.

One of the challenges Lane Kiffin faced was managing his practices -- how much contact, etc. -- with limited scholarship players. You'll be right around 70 guys next fall: What's your feeling on hitting at practice?

Sarkisian: Quite honestly, we're still going through that, trying to figure it out. We don't have to make that decision today. We do have a plan in place to visit with some people who have left college football and moved on to the NFL and how they've managed the NFL roster at practice, guys who have been in the NFL for some time, and how they manage their rosters. We're going to make sure our practices are extremely efficient. We going to have to be physical, but we're going to be efficient when we are physical. I think at the end of the day for us, come the fall, we want a healthy team that is capable of playing physical, fast, smart football. That's not going out to beat each other up on the field every single day. It's be smart when you are doing it, to understand to give guys enough breaks in between. It's about having enough information, seeing how the people at the highest level are doing it that have come from what they knew at the college level. It can serve as a good model for us.

I know you haven't even gone through spring practices, but where do you feel good about this roster and where are some areas of concern?

Sarkisian: I think we are a really talented and deep defense. I think the guys we have returning, as well as a couple of guys who redshirted a year ago, to go along with some of the kids we just signed, I'm really excited about the athleticism and physicality of our defense, especially the front seven. Offensively, the running back position is probably as good as there is in the country when you look at the first four guys, when you look at Buck Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ty Isaac. I think Nelson Agholor is a phenomenal wide receiver. I think we are going to have to figure out the right combination of offensive linemen. We're going to need some young guys to play there. The depth is not great there on the offensive line. I would say the strength of this team, today, going into spring practice, is our defense, and offensively for us figuring out the guys coming off of injury, whether it's [receivers] George Farmer, Steven Mitchell, how we're going to implement those guys, and then play to the strengths of those guys we have on offense.

You and Lane Kiffin have been friends a long time. It's kind of a strange situation in which you would follow your friend into a job, to replace your friend who has been fired. How has your relationship endured with you taking over a team he once coached?

Sarkisian: I think it's been fine. Lane is a really good football coach. I think he's going to do a really good job at Alabama. Sometimes when you get into situations, it's not about how much football you know. Sometimes it just doesn't work right; it just doesn't play out right. I have a great deal of respect for Lane. He's a good football coach. He's going to do great things. I hope what we bring to this program is something that is going to be really effective that gets us right back to the top, competing for championships year in and year out.

Finally, you ran an effective uptempo offense at Washington last year. Do you have any feelings about the NCAA's proposed rule changes, not allowing an offense to snap the ball before the play clock reaches 29 seconds?

Sarkisian: I was a little caught off-guard by it, quite honestly. I think the reality is that if we are talking about safety, if a player is injured, then he should be injured and get medical attention. If he is fatigued, he's fatigued. That's not injured. In basketball, when a player is fatigued, they don't let him just walk off the court and somebody else comes in. You have to wait for a dead ball or else call a timeout. I'm a little surprised by it. It kind of came out of left field. We'll see what happens. We'll see how it plays out. Not a lot of teams snap the ball within 10 seconds, anyway, so I wonder how often a team will snap the ball at 29 seconds and the defense will have 13 men on the field.

Trojans are deep at tailback

February, 13, 2014
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After the fax machines stopped rolling and the ink was dry on national signing day, USC first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, when discussing the merits of the 2014 recruiting class, made a point of stating that his staff intentionally did not recruit a running back.

Naturally, given the roster strength of the 2014 running back depth chart, this didn’t exactly come as a surprise. But it was recognition that of all those question marks heading into spring ball, the young men who carry the football aren’t an issue.

Sarkisian also reminded Trojans followers that despite the change in offensive formations, his philosophy on offense is to first having a power running game complemented by a balanced passing attack.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen is poised to be the leading tailback for USC.
There’s no position more identified or glorified in college football than the USC running back, or “tailback” as it is commonly referred. Legendary USC Hall of Fame coach John McKay created the modern era Trojans running game philosophy with the spotlight on the tailback and things haven’t significantly changed over the decades.

During McKay’s tenure, he believed the best ball carrier should be given the ball repeatedly and justified it with such immortal quotes as “It’s [the ball’s] not heavy,” and “he [the tailback] doesn’t belong to a union.”

One look at the Trojans' 2014 tailback depth chart and it appears to be a proverbial embarrassment of riches. Of the tailbacks returning, each has already been given the opportunity to carry the ball and has shown through styles of their own that they could probably start for most universities in the country.

About the only thing that has separated this collection of standout tailbacks has been injuries. As one talented tailback went down in 2013, another took his place without much of a hiccup.

Sophomores Javorius “Buck” Allen and Tre Madden, freshmen Justin Davis and Ty Isaac, and junior D.J. Morgan all return in 2014. About the only thing that separates most them all at this point, besides the brilliance of Allen’s second half of the season, is rehabilitation from injuries sustained during last season.

The healthy spotlight returner heading into spring practice is Allen, the 2013 team MVP whose rise to the prestigious heights of a starting USC tailback was both remarkable and heartwarming.

Allen, who seemed buried in Lane Kiffin’s pecking order last season, was given a chance when Kiffin was fired after the Arizona State debacle. Ed Orgeron handed over the tailback decisions to former running backs coach Tommie Robinson, who thought Allen was the best option in a recommitted power-oriented offense.

Naturally, Sarkisian hasn’t said how he plans to use his assortment of tailbacks. Will it be one featured back like Sarkisian’s former All-American at the University of Washington, Bishop Sankey, or tailback by committee? This decision will be part of many spring ball questions to be answered, but the truth probably lies with the fact that the actual running back rotation order probably won’t be decided until fall practice, when there are more healthy bodies available for scrimmaging.

Unless there is a shocking development in spring, it’s likely that junior-to-be Allen, who will probably be named to some preseason All-Pac-12 lists, will head into fall camp as the Trojans No. 1 running back. However, Sarkisian and running backs coach Johnny Nansen need to show some semblance of credibility when they say all positions are open, which should bring out the best in all the available tailbacks in the spring.

And since the Trojans didn’t recruit a tailback in the class of 2014, those potential running back recruits for the class of 2015 will also be paying close attention to how Sarkisian and Nansen use their backs this season.

So, the implementation of the new- or old-school philosophy of the USC tailback under Sarkisian is just a plethora of spring handoffs away, and it begs an answer to a tantalizing question: Is Sark a one-tailback, “old school” professor, or is he a multi-tailbacks, “new school” professor when it comes to Tailback U?
When USC defensive back Josh Shaw learned Steve Sarkisian would be the Trojans' new head coach, it was as if a four-year-old wish was finally granted.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Jae C. HongDespite the familiarity, Steve Sarkisian says it will take some time before he feels "settled" at USC.
During the recruiting process, Shaw, a Southern California native, developed a strong bond with Sarkisian. Shaw liked Sarkisian and so did Shaw's family, but Washington wasn't the right fit. Shaw had his sights set on the SEC and chose Florida.

"I wanted to play for Coach Sark," Shaw said, "but you never choose a school for the coach."

Shaw's career path is a case in point.

He played for two coaches in two years at Florida -- Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp -- three coaches last year at USC -- Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton -- and Sarkisian will become No. 6 in five seasons when the Trojans open at home against Fresno State on Aug. 30.

For Shaw, adjusting to a new head-coaching personality has become old hat, and he said the transition at Florida was similar to the most recent change at USC.

"Coach Muschamp came in, [and] he gained our respect instantly," Shaw said. "We knew he had the team's best interest at heart. He wanted to win; we wanted to win."

And Sarkisian?

"That first meeting [on] the day he was hired, he told us he didn't expect for us to trust him right away and that it's earned," Shaw said. "He said it was going to be a process that he'll work at."

So far, so good.

Despite not having played a game for Sarkisian, he was one of the crutches Shaw leaned on the most after the bowl game and before deciding to return to USC for his final year of eligibility.

"There was already some familiarity with us [because of recruiting], but after several talks, we've grown closer," Shaw said. "We sat in his office, and he looked me right in the eye as we discussed what would be the best decision for my future."

The same guidance was there for the five players who opted to enter the NFL draft -- Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Marcus Martin, George Uko and Dion Bailey -- but Sarkisian said he wasn't caught off guard by any of their decisions.

"For those guys that have been here for three and four years, I knew I wasn't going to win them over in one 30- or 40-minute meeting," Sarkisian said. "I just let them know I would be there for them one way or another. For the guys that decided to leave, we're going to do everything we can to support them, too."

When Sarkisian started meeting with players individually, there were two points he wanted to cover right away.

"I think, first and foremost, they understand why I chose to come to USC," Sarkisian said. "And that's to be the best. I want to coach with the best coaches; I want to coach the best players.

"The second piece is I wanted to learn why they chose USC. A lot of times it's for the the same reason, to win championships."

Winning championships is all Sarkisian knew in his previous stints with the Trojans.

After he was elevated from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach under Pete Carroll in 2002, USC earned at least a share of the conference title each season Sarkisian was on staff. He took a foray into the NFL as quarterbacks coach of Oakland Raiders in 2004, but aside from that, he was there for six of the seven BCS bowl berths during Carroll's tenure.

His last season on staff before taking over at Washington in 2009 also happens to be the last time USC won a conference title.

Despite being home in Southern California and his familiarity with USC, "settled" isn't the term Sarkisian would use to describe his current situation, and he doesn't expect that to change for some time.

"I don't know in Year 1 if you're ever settled in," he said. "Certainly not in six weeks. There are just so many facets to the job, new problems you have to work through, everything is constantly moving."

Especially when it comes to hiring a coaching staff and recruiting.

Sarkisian's staff appeared to be set before defensive line coach Bo Davis, a week after joining the staff at USC, had a change of heart and opted to join Nick Saban's staff at Alabama.

With national signing day on Feb. 5, Sarkisian had to move fast to find a replacement. He settled on Georgia's Chris Wilson, a former defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, after contacting "some of the best defensive line coaches in the country."

USC will begin spring practice on March 11.

Final Pac-12 Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
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If you don't like where you ended up in the Power Rankings, you should have played better.

Click here for Week 15's Power Rankings. Note that these rankings reflect the totality of the season.

1. Stanford (11-3, 7-2): Oregon finished higher in the final polls, but Stanford is the Pac-12 champion. And everyone out West remembers what happened Nov. 7.

2. Oregon (11-2, 7-2): The Ducks spent most of the season as a national title contender, but the regular season ended with a thud. The bowl victory over Texas was nice, and when you think about it, 11-2 and a final No. 9 ranking is, well, not too bad for Mark Helfrich's debut season.

3. Arizona State (10-4, 8-1): If the Sun Devils had taken care of business in the National University Holiday Bowl and grabbed an 11th win, this would have been a special season. As it turned out, it was merely a very good one.

4. UCLA (10-3, 6-3): The Bruins fell short of the South Division title because of a loss to Arizona State, but a 10-3 finish with a final No. 16 ranking tells the ultimate story: UCLA is trending up. Oh, and in case anyone forgot, there also was that second consecutive victory over USC for coach Jim Mora. Did anyone forget? Anyone? Bueller?

5. USC (10-4, 6-3): The Trojans had two seasons: the miserable start under Lane Kiffin and the strong second half under interim coaches Ed Orgeron and, in the bowl game, Clay Helton. Going 10-4 and finishing ranked 19th, particularly under the trying circumstances, is about the best that could have been hoped. Other than losses to UCLA and Notre Dame. That part could have been better.

6. Washington (9-4, 5-4): After three consecutive 7-6 seasons, the Huskies broke through in 2013, finishing 9-4 and ranked 25th. Credit goes to Steve Sarkisian for turning around a program that went winless the year before he arrived. He leaves behind a team with plenty of potential for new coach Chris Petersen.

7. Arizona (8-5, 4-5): The Wildcats had an interesting season. In part, their eight wins were because of a pillow-soft nonconference schedule that was a guaranteed 3-0 start. But they also beat Oregon and won a bowl game, dominating Boston College on both sides of the ball. On the downside is a second consecutive defeat to their friends in Tempe.

8. Oregon State (7-6, 4-5): The Beavers started horribly with a loss to Eastern Washington then rolled off six consecutive wins. Then, with the schedule ramping up considerably, they lost five in a row to finish the regular season. The strong performance in the Hawaii Bowl against Boise State took some of the sting out of the losing streak. But only some.

9. Washington State (6-7, 4-5): If the Cougars had won their bowl game, they would have been seventh here. Losing to Colorado State is bad under any circumstances, but the way the Cougs wilted at the end was horrid and should operate as fuel to motivate the team this offseason. Still, despite losing their final two games and finishing with a losing record, getting back to a bowl game was a big deal in the second season under Mike Leach.

10. Utah (5-7, 2-7): A second consecutive losing season is not what Utes fans have come to expect, even with a red-letter win over Stanford. Further, they are 5-13 in Pac-12 play in the past two seasons. There were major injury issues, most notably to QB Travis Wilson, but Utah can't be happy with its early performance in the conference. On the plus side, beating BYU and Utah State means state rivals don't have much room to rib the Utes.

11. Colorado (4-8, 1-8): There wasn't anywhere to go but up for Colorado after going 1-11 in 2012, and the Buffaloes went up this season under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre. They were still mostly outclassed in Pac-12 play, but there were signs of taking a step forward. The question now becomes, can they move up in the South Division?

12. California (1-11, 0-9): It was perhaps the most miserable season in Cal history in the first year under Sonny Dykes. The injuries were so epidemic it almost became comical -- almost -- but the effort and execution from the healthy players wasn't so hot either. The Bears need to show improvement next fall or the going could be tough for Dykes.

Season wrap: USC

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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The big news for USC's 2013 campaign wasn't the season itself but the firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That, however, also was the transformative moment of the season, as the Trojans bounced back from a dispiriting 3-2 start to finish 10-4 and rank 19th, rallying under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

The Trojans went 6-2 under Orgeron, but his hopes for earning the full-time job were likely dashed by two losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, USC's two chief rivals.

The second big news for the Trojans was the hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, which received a mixed reaction. But that points toward the future. Our concern is the 2013 season.

You can read our graded review of USC here.

Offensive MVP: The Trojans' offense struggled much of the season, ranking ninth in the conference with 29.7 points per game, but its most consistent weapon was receiver Nelson Agholor. With Marqise Lee in and out of the lineup with injuries, it was Agholor, a sophomore, who led the Trojans with 918 yards receiving and six touchdowns. His 16.4 yards per reception also was tops among the team's receivers. Further, he led the conference and ranked second in the nation with a 19.1-yard average on punt returns, which included two returns for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Leonard Williams became one of the nation's best defensive linemen as a true sophomore. He ranked second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and third-team by the Associated Press. He is almost certain to be a 2014 preseason All-American.

Best moment: No. 4 Stanford had rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the score at 17-17, and it had the ball with more than three minutes remaining on its 40-yard line. There was plenty of time to drive for the winning field goal, but Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw his second fourth-quarter interception to Su'a Cravens at the USC 44. The Trojans then got a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari, who had struggled for much of 2013, with just 19 seconds left to notch the upset, and recorded the fourth and best win of what would become a five-game winning streak under Orgeron.

Worst moment: While the 10-7 loss at home to Washington State was horrible -- the Trojans had just 193 total yards -- and was the beginning of the end for Kiffin, the 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the defeat that ended his tenure. Athletic director Pat Haden was so dismayed with the white-flag performance -- the Trojans gave up 612 yards -- that he fired Kiffin at LAX in the early morning hours of the next day. Of course, that low moment seems to spur the season's transformation so some may see Kiffin's firing as a good thing.
Actually, Peter, I wanted to tell you, I was listening to Sarah's iPod the other day, and amidst the interminable dross that's on that thing, I found one track that I quite liked. So I checked what it was, and it was actually one of yours, and it kind of reminded me of a dark, gothic Neil Diamond. It's great.

Season review: USC

January, 7, 2014
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Our season reviews continue in alphabetic order.

Next up is USC.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCody Kessler showed improvement with Clay Helton calling the plays.
Offense: When taking stock of the USC offense, you really have to look at it like it was two different seasons: The Lane Kiffin swan song vs. the Ed Orgeron rebirth. The first few games were an extended tryout at the quarterback spot, which was eventually won by Cody Kessler. In the first five games under Kiffin, Kessler completed 63 percent of his throws, averaged 166.4 yards per game and had six touchdowns to four interceptions. His raw QBR was 39.9 and his adjusted QBR was 48.9. Post Kiffin, when Clay Helton stepped in to call the plays, Kessler completed 65 percent of his throws and threw 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. As a team, they averaged 26 points in the first five games and 31.7 over the final nine. We also saw the emergence of Buck Allen at tailback. Once he started getting regular carries, he had four 100-yard rushing games in his final six games and 12 touchdowns over that same span. Often-injured Marqise Lee couldn’t follow up on his 2012 Belitnikoff Award season, but Nelson Agholor came on strong. It will be interesting to see what USC looks like as an uptempo offense with Steve Sarkisian at the helm. Grade: C+

Defense: For all the heat Kiffin took – including one last final burn – he also recognized that the Trojans needed to move to an odd front to keep up with some of the perimeter speed in the league. And he knew he had the horses. Hiring Clancy Pendergast was a wise decision. In one season under Pendergast, the Trojans cut their points allowed by more than a field goal, made huge strides in rush defense (167 yards allowed in 2012 compared to 120.3 in 2013) and were on the plus side of turnover margin at plus-6 after going minus-2 in 2012 and minus-1 in 2011. Four players landed on the first- or second-team all-league squads and Leonard Williams emerged as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country. Statistically, the Trojans ranked in the top three or four in the league in most major categories. Yes, there were a couple of bad games. But there was a lot more good than bad as the Trojans allowed fewer than 20 points in nine of 13 games. Grade: A-

Special teams: The Trojans were first in the league in punt returns with three touchdowns (two from Agholor), but last in the league in kick returns. They were second to last in the league in touchbacks, but had one of the stronger kick coverage teams in the league. Andre Heidari was just 15 of 22 on field goals, but he came up clutch in the Stanford game. And they were 2 for 2 on onside kicks. Some units were really good. Some, not so much. Grade: C+

Overall: Few teams in college football history had to endure the kind of internal drama that USC faced this year. And to come out on the other end up – ranked in the Top 25 and winning a bowl game over a ranked team – speaks to the character of the seniors and the job Orgeron did in relief. But it wasn’t all peaches. While the Trojans did score a huge win over Stanford, they still lost to Notre Dame and UCLA – a couple of big no-nos with the fans, die-hard and casual alike. Firing a coach midseason usually means throwing up a white flag. So we certainly give credit where credit is due. The Trojans fought hard. The losses were ugly (see: State, Washington; State, Arizona; and Dame, Notre). The future of the USC program is certainly going to be an interesting one. But when you peel back all of the layers of 2013 and reflect on what USC managed to get done, it’s hard not to respect where they ended up compared to where they could have ended up. Grade: B-

WeAreSC New Year's resolutions 

December, 30, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- The clock is ticking towards 2014, and it’s time for some cardinal and gold New Year’s resolutions.

I resolve to always appreciate and remember the 2013 Trojans and what a tremendous accomplishment it was to win 10 games in spite of the horrendous circumstances and drama.

I resolve not to believe that this team was so together and galvanized despite three coaches and the naming of a fourth that anybody could have coached them to victory against Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.


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USC's Pendergast factor

December, 28, 2013
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A couple of you have asked about the difference Clancy Pendergast made for USC's defense this fall, which is a pretty easy to quantify.

And it seems some of you asked specifically because Oregon is now looking for a defensive coordinator after Nick Aliotti announced his retirement Friday after the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30.

We sometimes do take requests at the Pac-12 blog.

With seven starters back from the 2012 unit, the improvement was dramatic and across the board, despite the Trojans switching schemes from Monte Kiffin's 4-3 Tampa 2 to Pendergast's 3-4 -- or 5-2, as he calls it.

Here are the numbers:
2012 Pac-12, 2013 Pac-12

Scoring defense 5th (24.3 ppg), 2nd (21.3ppg)

Total defense 7th (394.0 ypg), 1st (341.2 ypg)

Rushing defense 8th (167.0 ypg), 2nd (126.7 ypg)

Passing defense 4th (227.0 ypg), 1st (214.5 ypg)

Pass Eff. Def. 6th (123.9), 3rd (114.0)

Opponent 1sts, 9th (22.6), 2nd (18.5)

Oppoent 3rd percentage 8th (38.0), 2nd (36.8)

Red zone def percentage 6th (81.1), 1st (63.4)

Further, the Trojans ranked in the nation's top 32 in every above number. In 2012, they didn't rank that highly in any of the above numbers. In fact, their highest national ranking was 40th in scoring defense.

And those 2013 numbers, by the way, including the absolute white flag performance at Arizona State, a 62-41 defeat, had a lot more to do with effort than scheme, which is why Lane Kiffin was fired the same night.

Pendergast has received plenty of praise for the job he did this year at USC. This makes clear it was justifiable.

Just saying, Ducks.

2013 review: USC offense 

December, 24, 2013
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With a new starting quarterback at the helm, a slew of injuries depleting an already thin depth chart and a highly publicized coaching carousel, the production of the USC offense was largely up and down in 2013 with the Trojans averaging a pedestrian 29.7 points per game, while converting just 35 percent on third-down plays.

Still, part of a USC squad that finished 10-4, this is a unit that made strides throughout the course of the season. It’s safe to say that it certainly had more than its share of shining moments.

Quarterback

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Steve Sarkisian Q and A

December, 23, 2013
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LAS VEGAS -- Steve Sarkisian smiled as he walked through the lobby of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas wearing a USC pullover, jeans and loafers.

USC’s new head coach was more of a coach-in-waiting last weekend as he met with parents, players and coaches in Las Vegas before officially taking over the reins following USC’s 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Sarkisian watched the game from a suite in the press box along with USC athletic director Pat Haden and met with the team as the players boarded the team bus after the game.

“I want them to enjoy it and embrace it,” said Sarkisian, 39. “I couldn't be more proud of them, that they were able to come out and perform the way they did. They deserve it. I just tried to stay out of the way, the best I could. Now I get to get my hands on them and get going -- and there's a lot to work with, that's for sure.”

Before Sarkisian gets going, he sat down with ESPNLosAngeles.com for a wide-ranging interview about taking over the team and about his plans for the future of USC football.

ESPNLA: When Lane Kiffin was fired five games into the season, most figured Pat Haden would spend the final two months of the season trying to secure a “home run” hire to replace him. No disrespect, but after a 34-29 record at Washington, you were not viewed as a” home run hire” by many. Why do you think you’re the right hire for USC?

Sarkisian: I think I’m one of their own. I’ve always considered myself a part of the Trojan family. I come here with a dedication to do everything in my power for them, to work my tail of to get this place back to where it needs to be and belongs to be. I’ve got rich ties to this program. I was here in some of the best years this program has ever had. I think we have an exciting, innovative offense that will kick-start this program and make it the dynamic program offensively that we know we can be. I know I’m going to recruit Southern California extremely well. But at the end of the day, whether you agree with my hiring or not, let’s judge the hiring three or four years down the road. Then come tell me if you think it was a good hire or not. I’m like a recruit. Every coach probably has stars on them. I don’t know if I’m a three-, four- or five-star coach, but that really doesn’t matter in recruiting. It’s the results that you have that really earn those stars so we’ll go see how many stars I can earn.

ESPNLA: Lane Kiffin left Tennessee after one season to come back to coach USC. You left what you had built at Washington over five years to come back and coach USC. You both could have carved your own paths elsewhere but came back. What is it about the USC job that makes it a “dream job” for you?

Sarkisian: I was born and raised in Southern California. I’ve watched the USC football program from the first day I can remember watching football. They won Rose Bowls and national championships and had all those great players. In my youth, those were some of the best years ever in USC history, in the 1970s. I’ve always held on to that. I also had my time here as an assistant coach with Pete [Carroll] and some of the great memories and experiences and teams that we had. So for me, when this opportunity came, I had to take it.

What makes it unique for me is, first of all, it's home, second, the rich history and tradition that this place has, and third, I can vividly remember talking to Pete as a young coach. He asked me, “What do you want? What are you looking for in this profession? Where are you headed?” I told him, “I want your job.” I remember saying that to him a long time ago. I think this is the best job in America. People come here to be the best and that’s why I chose to come here.

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After bowl win, big questions for USC

December, 23, 2013
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When you cup your hands around USC's 45-20 blowout victory over No. 20 Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl and assume singular focus on the event itself, it's impossible to not be impressed, to not think, "Now that is USC football."

Then when you put it in the context of the tumultuous season -- a maelstrom of coaching uncertainty and chaotic swings of momentum -- it seems like Trojans fans should officially declare the strangest season in program history at least a moderate success, perhaps as successful as it could have been. Well, other than losses to Notre Dame and UCLA.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThings seem to be looking up for Cody Kessler, left, Buck Allen and the Trojans.
Still, winning 10 games, including a bowl game, and ending up nationally ranked is pretty respectable when it's produced by an injury-ravaged, scholarship-reduced team that has called four different men its head coach between August and today.

Further, it shows the players have pride. A substantial handful -- both seniors and underclassmen -- are eyeballing the NFL draft, and it wouldn't have been shocking if they gave an indifferent performance against Fresno State, a team that arrived with plenty of motivation. Quarterback Cody Kessler told Kevin last week that the Trojans were focused and motivated, and it proved to me more than empty, tell-the-reporter-something-pretty talk.

Said Kessler, "Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”

So the players who are leaving, which might include leading juniors such as receiver Marqise Lee, defensive end George Uko, linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Dion Bailey and cornerback Josh Shaw, can feel good about how they finished things. If this performance was a tribute to former interim coach Ed Orgeron, then you can be sure Coach O was howling with delight somewhere while watching the game.

But what about those who are staying?

The big news coming out of the Las Vegas Bowl other than the final score was that new coach Steve Sarkisian will retain offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who served as the interim head coach for the bowl game. That's probably good news for Kessler, who blossomed once Helton took over the offense from fired coach Lane Kiffin.

Of course, Sarkisian, like Kiffin, calls his own offensive plays, so if another opportunity arises for Helton, particularly one that includes play-calling duties, he might opt to leave.

In fact, who's staying and who's going applies to both the players and coaches. We probably won't get official word on the makeup of Sarkisian's staff until after Washington, his former team, plays BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday night. The Huskies under new coach Chris Petersen also have kept their plans quiet.

The big questions: Will Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo follow Sarkisian south? If Wilcox shortly arrives at Heritage Hall, then where does current USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast end up? In one year, he transformed one of the nation's most underachieving defenses into one of its best. Hard to imagine he stays unemployed for long.

This whole blending together of USC's and Washington's -- and Washington's and Boise State's -- 2013 staffs has certainly inspired plenty of gossip among other assistant coaches.

Another question: Tosh Lupoi.

The Huskies ace recruiter and defensive line coach is being investigated by the NCAA following allegations that he paid for private tutoring for Husky football recruit Andrew Basham, with Basham's former high school track coach, Mike Davis, spilling the beans to the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times last week.

What that means in the short term is that Lupoi won't be hired by USC, and he might be out of a job until the NCAA rules on his case. What it means in the big picture for two Pac-12 football programs in transition is hard to say, as Washington, USC and Sarkisian have significant interests in the matter.

Due to new NCAA rules, Sarkisian could be exposed, which means USC could suffer for violations that occurred in Seattle.

And, yes, feel free to question the timing of these allegations being reported and speculate on where the sour grapes originated that spawned the investigation.

An offshoot of Lupoi's troubles is the Trojans’ need for a defensive line coach, which probably is why Sarkisian told ESPNLA 710 on Sunday that he's going to make another run at Orgeron to see if he's interested in returning to USC.

That could be interesting. Or it could just be idle talk.

Once all the administrative and personnel issues are settled, then we'll start to take a measure of the Sarkisian administration and how things might stack up in 2014. Trojans fans first want to see where their team ends up on Feb. 5, national signing day. Then it's on to spring practice, where Kessler likely will have to prove himself again, though Helton staying on should provide his candidacy a boost.

USC's bowl win was impressive. It surely made Trojans feel good, inside and outside the locker room. But the reality is it was as isolated as a pleasant fan experience can be. A win in the Las Vegas Bowl and finishing in the lower half of the nation's top-25 isn't what Trojans pine for. With this next recruiting class the last one limited by NCAA sanctions, most are ready to see the program regain its footing among the Pac-12 and nation's elite.

Sarkisian officially took the keys of the program on Saturday. By Sunday, the euphoria from the bowl win probably started to waft away inside Heritage Hall.

The real business begins now.

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