USC Trojans: Steve Sarkisian

LOS ANGELES -- There is no delicate way to sugarcoat it, the USC Trojans (5-3, 4-2 Pac-12) could be in legitimate danger of not being bowl eligible. The Trojans must get to at least six victories to become bowl eligible and the Men of Troy have four games left to win just one more, but none of the opponents could be classified as a gimme.

For Trojans first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, these are trying times and with Washington State, Cal, UCLA, and Notre Dame remaining, there is dramatic uncertainty that the Trojans or its legion of fans will be attending a major bowl game or any bowl game for that matter.

Ironically, the Trojans' next opponent, Washington State (2-6, 1-4 Pac-12) in Pullman this Saturday afternoon, must win out to become bowl eligible.

Saturday night's gut-wrenching loss at Utah, which prevented instant bowl eligibility, pretty much sums up a season that started with so much fanfare, thanks in part to the repeated message dispensed by Sarkisian.

The Sarkisian message: The 2014 Trojans are talented and of championship caliber.

Nobody argues with Sark's preseason and ongoing assessment, but as of this point in time, the record shows they are painfully fading in the championship caliber category.

Now 4-2 in the Pac-12 with two difficult South Division losses to ASU and Utah, respectively, Sarkisian will need to dig deep into his physiological playbook to make sure he his team doesn't collapse from the weight of the current "situation."

In their past six games, the Trojans are 3-3. Not what loyal fans of Tommy Trojan had in mind. In their three losses, the Trojans have been clipped by a physical rushing defeat at Boston College, a passing onslaught and last second Hail Mary from Arizona State, and, of course, Saturday night's latest losing fourth-quarter fiasco on the next-to-last play of the game in Salt Lake City.

To be honest, even in earlier Trojans' victories against challenging foes such as Stanford and Arizona, it's been hold-your-breath until the final ticks of the scoreboard clock.

Realistically, a shot at the College Football Playoff is now a distant memory, a chance to play in the Pac-12 championship game is all but mathematically extinguished, but the final coup de grace would be bowl birth elimination. It's one thing to be NCAA sanctioned out of bowling, it's quite another to play your way out of postseason play.

The Trojans finished 10-4 in 2013 and returned a number of returning players for 2014. Even with the absurd coaching drama of last season, the Trojans still managed to make it to the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl and finished with a resounding and upbeat win against Fresno State.

Now a 10-win season is also in major jeopardy. Yet, if the Trojans can produce an improbable four-game sweep of its remaining games and win a bowl game, they'll have at least equaled last season's record.

Nobody is more aware of all the current scenarios than Sarkisian, who still has some of the aforementioned carrots to entice his team. He has been telling his team lately that every game is a championship game.

Sark, however, now needs to re-word his message by saying that every game now could be a bowl eliminator, and maybe by looking at last season's enthusiastic rebound, this season's Trojans can resurrect a positive conclusion to this season.

WeAreSC roundtable: Biggest test at Utah?

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
10:38
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1. Was the Colorado win the breakout game the USC offense was looking for?

Garry Paskwietz: It was definitely the most dynamic game of the season, and I think a lot of USC fans -- and coach Steve Sarkisian -- would describe that dynamic element as the biggest missing piece of the offense to this point so by that standard you can say it was a breakout kind of game. You had Cody Kessler with his school-record seven touchdowns, you had a pair of running backs around the 100-yard mark and a pair of receivers who broke the 100-yard mark. That's a pretty good offensive night no matter who the opponent.

Johnny Curren: I think Colorado certainly was the breakout game that the USC offense was looking for. After all, just about everything clicked for Sarkisian & Co. Kessler threw for a school-record seven touchdowns, and both Buck Allen and Justin Davis shined on the ground. Still, it's important to take into account the fact it all happened against a Colorado defensive unit that has struggled throughout much of 2014. Because of that, I'm more interested to see if the USC offense can continue to find success against Utah this weekend, as well as through the rest of the schedule. If the offense does continue to perform at a high level, however, I think that everyone will point to the Colorado game as the moment when everything first came together.

Greg Katz: Yes, in terms of showing against a weak defense that the Trojans' offense can be balanced and the passing game can be vertical. We'll find out this Saturday night at Utah if the balanced offense the Trojans showcased on homecoming will be the same we see in Salt Lake City. A word of caution: The opener against Fresno State, with all its offensive fireworks, was an anomaly to a certain extent to what the rest of the season has been prior to playing Colorado.

2. What will be the biggest test on the road this week against Utah?

Garry Paskwietz: Keeping pressure off Kessler. The Trojans' young offensive line has shown growth in the run game lately, now they will get a test against a formidable pass rush that comes early and often. Sarkisian said the Utes' M.O. is to get after the quarterback, and with a nation-leading 5.5 sacks per game, it's pretty obvious that they do it well.

Johnny Curren: I think that the Trojans' biggest test will come up front on offense, as the USC offensive line is set to go up against an extremely talented Utah front seven that has the Utes currently ranking No. 1 nationally in both sacks (5.5 per game) and tackles for loss (10.2 per game). There's no denying the fact that Tim Drevno's young group has made tremendous strides as of late, but they're going to need to come up with their best performance yet in this one.

Greg Katz: To be able to match and sustain the physical aspect that Utah will bring on both offense (rushing) and defense (QB sacking). The Trojans showed at Arizona that they can survive in a major hostile environment. Utah could be the toughest test of the season thus far.

3. Will Allen end up in New York as a Heisman finalist this year?

Garry Paskwietz: To paraphrase a line from "Dumb and Dumber," I'm saying there's a chance. There is a pretty good group at the top of the Heisman pecking order that Buck would need to crack but if he can maintain his per game average, he would end the season with roughly 1,600 rushing yards and that would be a hard candidate to keep away from the Big Apple. There is certainly a long way to go before that can happen and a lot that would need to fall in the right direction but Buck has done his part to give himself a chance.

Johnny Curren: I do think Allen will end up as a Heisman finalist this year, primarily because he just seems to keep getting better and better. He's running with so much confidence right now, and he's so talented not only as a rusher, but also as a receiver. I think that his final numbers at the end of the regular season are going to be really impressive. Of course, one thing that will certainly play a part is what kind of record the Trojans have when it's all said and done. If they keep winning, he's going to start getting a lot more media attention. If they don't, his accomplishments risk getting buried.

Greg Katz: It all depends how he plays against UCLA and more importantly Notre Dame. Ask me today and I say, "No." Buck is having a wonderful season and will be rewarded come NFL draft time. However, he has not been given the preseason publicity push needed to be in the mix.
The Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half turned the game around. Maybe it also turned around USC's season.

The wildly unexpected, looping, 48-yard prayer of a spiral from Cody Kessler to Darreus Rogers in the end zone Saturday night changed the entire complexion of an otherwise sluggish evening. Instead of clinging to a 14-10 lead over Oregon State, the score suddenly expanded to 21-10, sucking all the energy out of Mike Riley's Beavers.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUSC's Javorius Allen rushes for 115 yards on 20 carries and one touchdown against Oregon State.
Buoyed by their surprising good fortune, Steve Sarkisian's Trojans seemed to relax in the second half, returning to the way they are supposed to play on offense, emphasizing a strong running game that opened up a passing attack highlighted by USC's entire stable of young, athletic receivers.

Perhaps most important, this was the Trojans' best defensive performance of the still early season. Certainly, it helped that they were playing a straight dropback passer in Sean Mannion. USC's defense always seems to play better when the opposing quarterback isn't a running threat.

Still, Mannion's credentials were imposing, and Su'a Cravens and friends made it a long, uncomfortable evening for him. For the first time this season, the pass rush was fierce. And Cravens was merely the best player on the field, coming up with an interception touchdown return and a sack while appearing to surround every Oregon State ball carrier on the way to that 35-10 blitz.

Makes you wonder how we'd all be viewing things Sunday if there hadn't been that unsightly blip in Boston two weeks ago. How bad a loss was that? Well, Boston College was last seen losing to Colorado State on Saturday. Yes, Colorado State.

So instead of 4-0 and climbing in the polls, the Trojans are 3-1 and hoping to sneak up a notch or two in the coming weeks. It could happen, because the Pac-12 has begun to look more than a little vulnerable.

Unbeaten Oregon has some gaping holes in its injury-marred offensive line. Stanford struggled mightily to beat Washington by a touchdown on Saturday. Arizona State coughed up 62 points to UCLA at home. Utah was beaten by Washington State. And Cal and Colorado played a ping-pong game of football, trading 14 touchdown passes in a 59-56 can-anyone-here-play-defense Bears' victory.

This is shaping up as one wide-open conference race, and USC's schedule gives it a decent shot to stay in the thick of it, particularly if it can find a way to improve against dual-threat quarterbacks.

Clearly, there were more than a few encouraging signs on Saturday.

Kessler, who still hasn't thrown an interception this season, continues to play effectively, if unspectacularly, at quarterback. He takes what the defense gives him, and it usually gives him plenty once the Trojans' running game establishes itself. It took a while on Saturday, but Javorius Allen eventually slipped it into gear, perhaps motivated by fellow tailback Justin Davis' finest game of the season.

Craven has developed into a monster hybrid safety/linebacker. The young offensive line bounced back nicely. Leonard Williams, seemingly 100 percent healthy, looked as imposing as ever in the defensive line, and if freshman Adoree' Jackson isn't already one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12, he soon will be.

Next up is Arizona State, and much will depend on the condition of quarterback Taylor Kelly, last seen on crutches watching his Sun Devils get chewed up by Brett Hundley, Ishmael Adams and the Bruins on Thursday night. If his injured foot can heal enough to allow him to play in the Coliseum, Arizona State's chances obviously are enhanced.

Even then, though, it would seem Kelly would be limited to throwing. He's not likely to do much running on a foot that is still healing.

USC and its new-found momentum will be favored either way, just as the Trojans are once again likely to be favored in every remaining game on their schedule leading up to those two potential November blockbusters against UCLA and Notre Dame.

Funny how, in the wake of one unexpected play, outlooks can change so swiftly.

Hail Mary, indeed.
There will be a lot of anticipation at the Coliseum on Saturday to see how the USC Trojans respond to the Boston College loss two weeks ago.

The matchup against Oregon State will be the first opportunity for the Trojans, who were on bye last week, to get back on the field after suffering the surprising loss, something that USC coach Steve Sarkisian said has its plusses and minuses.

"It was good for our players to get a chance to sit around and watch some college football on Saturday, kind of get refreshed," Sarkisian said. "But you also hear about the loss more with the bye week, I think we all welcomed the chance to come back to work and have our sole focus be on Oregon State."

One of those focuses will be on the offensive side of the ball after Sarkisian said last week that the bye week might be a time to take a look at the identity of the USC offense, to be a run-to-pass team or a pass-to-run team. The Trojans coach provided few details as to the results of his offensive self-evaluation, only to say the team is fortunate to be able to run multiple styles of offense.

"We've got a great game plan and I can't wait to execute it on Saturday," Sarkisian said.

Undoubtedly one element of the plan will be figuring out the best way to attack the veteran Beavers' defense, one that features eight seniors and three juniors in the starting line-up. Oregon State currently ranks in the top 10 nationally for five different defensive categories, including first in both pass efficiency defense (67.0) and third-down conversion defense (.231) and sixth in total defense (255.0).

Granted, the USC offense should be a step up from previous Beavers' opponents -- Portland State, Hawaii and San Diego State -- but a defense that is familiar with each other can play fast and communicate well, which always presents a challenge.

"They play solid, real physical," USC tight end Randall Telfer said. "They're a bunch of vets. You don't see too many defenses with that many veteran guys so you know they will play the run well, that's what we expect. I have a lot of confidence in our guys to be ready, but it's a truth of the matter when you have young guys going against veteran guys, it's going to be a matter of focus on doing your job with great effort."

USC offensive line coach Tim Drevno -- who plays three true freshmen in his interior two-deep rotation -- says the effort is there in practice as the players and coaches work to avoid a repeat of the problems that plagued the Trojans' offense two weeks ago.

"The plan against BC didn't work," Drevno said. "It's a growing experience and everybody's fingerprints are all over it. But it's good sometimes to get a piece of humble pie, it makes you better. The attitude and the work ethic to get things fixed has been good. Everybody has a chip on their shoulder to improve this thing, coaches included, any time you lose there is a competitiveness within you to fix the problem."
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If USC's sudden defensive breakdown after three games seems shocking, it shouldn't be.

Not if you carefully studied Steve Sarkisian's coaching resume. Not if you observe him on the practice field, where he spends almost 95 percent of his time with the offense. Not if you watched as he made little, if any, halftime adjustments as Boston College trampled through the Trojans for so many rushing yards, you'd have thought it was Oregon on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

That wasn't just another defeat in Chesnut Hill on Saturday night. It was among the more embarrassing losses in recent school history.

USC teams do not get outrushed 452 yards to 20. It just isn't supposed to happen.

But it did. It was as real as all that BC emotion flooding out from the stands. A small, unranked bunch beat all those four and five-star Trojans recruits into the ground. The same team that had been pounded for 302 yards rushing by Pittsburgh a week earlier made USC's offensive and defensive lines look thinner than your average lobster roll on the way to a 37-31 upset that was far worse then the final score indicated.

Maybe this is what happens when you hire a head coach with little or no defensive background. In 2011, in Sarkisian's third year at Washington, his team finished 105th or lower nationally in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense.

Eventually, Sark, whose entire coaching career has been on the offensive side, hired Justin Wilcox as his defensive coordinator, and things improved dramatically. But Wilcox came with him to USC, and after three games, this Trojans' defense is seriously staggering.

First, Stanford gashed it for 413 yards, failing to win the game only because it couldn't convert inside the red zone. Then this, a Trojans' performance so ragged, it couldn't be blamed solely on a post-Cardinal letdown, or a long cross-country plane ride.

You don't stink up the place like that, coughing up 506 total yards, unless you have some serious problems. And a defense that was supposed to be the best in the Pac-12 and one of the better units in the country suddenly has more holes in it than a bad summer movie script.

How could Boston College make Leonard Williams & Co. look so confused with their read-options? Where were the USC defenders on the edge? And how in the world did they turn tiny quarterback Tyler Murphy into looking like the second coming of Marcus Mariota?

Offensively, most of the problems centered on the Trojans' young blockers, who were clearly overmatched. They couldn't run block, and they couldn't pass block. Other than that, they were fine.

Not that Sarkisian helped much with his play calling. Even after it became clear Javorius Allen and Justin Davis couldn't even get to the line of scrimmage most of the time, Sark kept calling run plays, especially on first down.

Whatever happened to taking what the defense gives you? Clearly, BC was concentrating on stopping the run and giving USC the intermediate passing game, but Cody Kessler, who suffered five sacks, wasn't able to take much advantage of it when it mattered.

The Trojans finally ditched their short, horizontal passing game to rally some with 14 points in the fourth quarter, but every time you thought they had a chance to come back, the Eagles would get the ball back and the rest was history.

So just as quickly as the 2014 optimism skyrocketed a week ago, it has plummeted back to Earth. Instead of being 3-0 and looking ahead to bigger and better things, USC is a sagging 2-1 after losing to a 17-point underdog.

And if Murphy and the less-than-imposing Eagles can do this to the Trojans, what are Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame apt to do, let alone a more sophisticated read-option team such as Arizona, or a hungry Utah squad in Salt Lake City?

The road that looked so smooth and inviting after the great escape at Stanford now is filled with potential potholes again.

Longtime Trojans fans have every right to be disappointed.

But if they go back and review the new head coach's resume, they really shouldn't be surprised.

Trojans benefit from unique retreat 

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
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The Trojans kicked off fall camp on Monday, and while the lightning-quick tempo first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian had the team going through had even the throng of fans in attendance huffing and puffing, for a particular group of USC players, it was nothing compared to what they went through a few days earlier.

Big changes for 2014 USC Trojans 

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
10:00
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LOS ANGELES -- As the USC Trojans prepare to open their 2014 training camp on Monday, you probably already know that there are big changes coming. The changes on and off the field could be the biggest for USC since the arrival of John McKay as head coach back in 1960.

The offense: Tailback U., as you know it, is now currently in mothballs. So long traditional McKay "I-formation.” Forget about asking first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian about the term "tailback. It doesn't exist. If that isn't a huge change, what's next? No Traveler? No marching band?

At last week's Pac-12 media days, Sarkisian was asked whether the offense was no longer Tailback U. The former Pete Carroll assistant's response was that he believes in a power running game first but went on to say he sees no difference between the terms "tailback" and "running back." They are both he same to him.

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There they were, sitting together for an ESPN SportsCenter interview the other day, Steve Sarkisian and Chris Petersen.

The new head coach at USC, and the coach who might have been. The former head coach at the University of Washington, and the coach who arrived in Seattle as soon as the other passed him on the way out.

Appearing there side-by-side on television seemed so appropriate, considering they will be inexorably linked for the rest of this fascinating transition season, for the season after that and probably for the remainder of their college coaching future. Their unique career paths literally dictate the constant comparison.

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Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans feel the need for speed.

If you're looking for signs of where the new USC coach is going to make his biggest imprint this fall, it would be a good idea to look at the up-tempo offense that the Trojans will utilize.

Huddling? That's a thing of the past, the Trojans will be too busy hustling to the line of scrimmage for the next play. And don't expect to see the quarterback under center much either, Cody Kessler will line up primarily in the shotgun with a single back. That means USC, the home of the modern I formation, will not use a full-time fullback and will run a lot of three-receiver sets.

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While some like to gleefully dance around a raging bonfire in nothing but a loincloth with the heads of college football coaches on pitchforks, the Pac-12 blog is less demonstrative. And more empathetic.

It believes there is no glee in seeing someone fired, even if said coach is snarky, unavailable or arrogant. Let he who is not sometimes snarky, unavailable or arrogant cast the first stone! (Pac-12 blog starts sheepishly whistling.)

That's why the Pac-12 blog cringes every year when it acts as a reluctant prophet of doom by putting a thermometer to each conference coaches' stool and announcing a temperature. It gives us no pleasure to tell the coach to slide over a bit so we can scramble some eggs and rustle up some bacon (thick cut) on a portion of his seat.

Ah, but there is good news in 2014. The Pac-12 coaching stools range from comfortably chilled to slightly warm to the touch. There are no Will Muschamps, Mike Londons or Dana Holgorsens in the Pac-12 this year.

So while there's always going to be someone stuck at No. 12 when Pac-12 teams are ranked, there's good reason to believe the conference just might get through a season without a coaching change -- at least not one created by a boot and a slamming door.

1. David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw has won consecutive Pac-12 titles. He inherited a good thing from Jim Harbaugh and made it better. He's a Stanford graduate and he loves raising his family among family in Palo Alto. While many view him as a future NFL coach -- and you never say never in coaching -- he's the most likely guy on this list to be in the same place a decade from now.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJim Mora is 19-8 in two seasons at UCLA.
2. Jim Mora, UCLA: In just two seasons, Mora has built the Bruins into a Pac-12 and national contender. He has considerable positive momentum on the field and in recruiting. The most likely scenario for departure is him leaving on his own accord. UCLA can avoid that by continuing to invest in the football program -- read: coaching salaries and facilities upgrades.

3. Todd Graham, Arizona State: Mora and Graham are really 2A and 2B, as they have both turned so-called "sleeping giants" into potentially awakening giants. While some still believe Graham could eventually have a wandering eye, every indication -- including this -- is he is setting up for the long term in Tempe.

4. Chris Petersen, Washington: Petersen is not only secure because he's in his first season with the Huskies, he's also secure because he's Chris Petersen, who's widely regarded as an elite coach. Of course, if he's a 7-5 or 6-6 Chris Petersen in December, then the Sark II jokes will begin.

5. Mike Leach, Washington State: While Leach isn't great at avoiding controversy -- he feels no need to place a filter between his brain and mouth -- his team took a big step forward last year. Further, he seems like a great fit in Pullman and with Coug fans, who enjoy his quirkiness. Finally, he's got a good and supportive AD in Bill Moos, who has tirelessly worked to improve the facilities around the program.

6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: Rodriguez has done a good job his first two years in Tucson, winning more than a few games he shouldn't have, as well as grabbing a pair of bowl victories. What knocks him down here is Graham's success in Tempe and Graham's 2-0 record in the Territorial Cup. Rich Rod can't afford for that to become a long-term trend.

7. Mike Riley, Oregon State: The notion that Riley could be terminated feels unlikely, but there is a faction of Beavers fans that is dissatisfied with the program, in large part because of Oregon's rise to national prominence. If those folks would write the athletic department a $68 million check, they'd have more legitimacy and a better chance of getting an audience with AD Bob De Carolis.

8. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado: MacIntyre's early returns are solid. Colorado improved in myriad ways last year. He seems like a good fit. But the Buffaloes are just 1-8 in conference games the past two seasons. You'd suspect fans are ready to show some patience, but a coach is never secure until he starts winning conference games.

9. Steve Sarkisian, USC: How can Sarkisian be all the way down here in his first year? For one, it's because his hiring wasn't overwhelmingly greeted with celebratory cheers. But it's also that USC fans have a small window for satisfaction: Pac-12 championships and national titles. You even can win a bunch of the former and not be loved if you're not competing for the latter.

10. Mark Helfrich, Oregon: Helfrich has some of the same issues as Sark, though he's in his second year leading a nouveau riche program as opposed to an old-school power. He won 11 games and was in the national title picture much of 2013 but some Ducks fans only know him for Not Being Chip Kelly. The Ducks are again Pac-12 favorites and top national title contenders. If they lose more than one regular-season game, though, some fans might become disgruntled. Not saying it's right, but it would happen.

11. Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Whittingham is the starting line on this list for where there's actually some real warmth, but he also has a strong track record with his program and a legitimate excuse: It ain't easy moving up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Still, Utes fans are eager to gain some traction in the South Division. Whittingham should be safe with a return to the postseason, but a third consecutive losing record could tighten the screws considerably.

12. Sonny Dykes, California: Dykes is only in his second season, which typically would mean he's safe. The conventional wisdom is a coach needs at least three and preferably five years to be fairly evaluated. But college football has become far less patient with losing -- even academic bastions like Berkeley -- and Cal has spent a bunch of cash for fancy facilities upgrades. The expectation here is Dykes will be back in 2015 if his team wins three or four games and shows improvement in terms of soundness and consistent focus. But he can't afford another feckless 1-11 season.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.

USC offseason storylines: QB

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
7:00
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Here's a look at the top quarterback storylines for USC this offseason:

Quarterback
All eyes were focused on the quarterback position at USC this past spring, and that was for good reason. With the coveted starting role declared up for grabs by new head coach Steve Sarkisian, the offseason departure of Max Wittek and the unveiling of an up-tempo offense run out of the shotgun, there were more than a few factors in play that made this the group the one to watch throughout the March and April practice sessions.

Ultimately, it was fourth-year junior Cody Kessler who, somewhat unsurprisingly, emerged atop the depth chart in the highly-publicized position battle, but there’s still plenty to keep your eye on in terms of offseason storylines when it comes to this unit.

Kessler in charge
[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesExperience helped Cody Kessler win USC's starting QB job in the spring.
While the fact that Kessler, who started all 14 games for the Trojans in 2013, won out in a competition against a pair of inexperienced youngsters in second-year freshman Max Browne and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene wasn’t exactly a revelation in itself, the decisive way in which he ran away with the job was.

Making a seamless transition into the new offense, he picked right up where he left off after a MVP performance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, drawing praise from Sarkisian for his decision-making and arm strength.

Just as impressive, however, was his continued growth as a team leader – another important variable that played a part in the head coach’s decision.

And credit to Sarkisian for announcing his verdict when he did. Forced to share the quarterback job with Wittek through the Trojans’ first two games in 2013 under the previous coaching regime, Kessler admitted to having been rattled by the constant state of uncertainty. By announcing Kessler as the starter in the spring this time around, Sarkisian has allowed his veteran passer to get a whole summer under his belt as the man in charge of what he can now safely call his team.

If the early portion of summer drills are any indication, that move is already paying off, as Kessler has looked confident and sharp. And just how far he continues to come along in the coming weeks will undoubtedly play a significant role in determining just how efficient the USC offense is in Year 1 under Sarkisian.

Browne still competing
Kessler was the undisputed winner this past spring, but the young and talented Browne is right behind him. Kessler knows that he can’t let up for a second, particularly once fall camp starts up -- when Sarkisian said he expects the competition to “wage on.”

Browne, who has improved steadily since his initial arrival at USC as one of the most heralded members of the Class of 2013, bulked up in the spring and had more zip on his throws, but he still couldn’t manage to overtake his more seasoned counterpart.

For his part, however, Browne has said and done everything that anyone could possibly ask of him since Sarkisian announced his decision. He plans to continue to compete each and every day, and he's also made a point of putting the team ahead of himself by embracing the responsibilities that come with being the backup, a fact that has been noticeable during summer workouts when he’s been observed signaling plays into Kessler during some of the team’s 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods.

Ultimately, the possibility of Browne overtaking Kessler prior to the 2014 season would have to be considered a long shot. But he certainly has an extremely bright future at USC. Until his time comes, however, the Trojans would appear to have a very solid No. 2 option who will also continue to provide more than enough pressure on Kessler to ensure that he never falls asleep at the wheel.

Greene a glimpse of the future?
While it was Kessler and Browne who garnered the bulk of the attention in the competition for the No. 1 job in the spring, the most intriguing participant in the quarterback derby just might have been Greene, who arrived at USC this past January from local powerhouse Gardena (California) Serra.

As a true dual-threat quarterback, he provides a much different look at the position in USC’s offensive attack than Kessler and Browne, who both fit into the pocket-passer category. So, the big question is does Greene exemplify the kind of signal-caller that Sarkisian, ideally, wants at the helm of his offense? After all, everyone has seen the kind of success that fast-paced offenses like those featured at Oregon have had with athletic quarterbacks running the show.

Throw in the fact that USC seems to be targeting other dual-threat passers on the recruiting trail, such as Westlake’s (California) Malik Henry in the Class of 2016, and it’s not a stretch to assume that Sarkisian might have big plans down the line for a quarterback like Greene.

A strong-armed lefty, he made tremendous strides from the first practice to the No. 15 practice this past spring, drawing heavy praise from USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton as a result. Still, there’s little doubt that he still has a ways to go before he can be considered a serious contender for the starting job. But with the promise that he’s already shown, and where Sarkisian and the offense seem to be headed, maybe Browne isn’t the only quarterback to keep close tabs on with an eye toward the future.
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Lawyers get busted on plenty. Rightfully so. They often make a living out of complicating the simple. The best lawyers elevate disingenuousness to an art form.

Yet litigation and opportunistic lawyers are forcing the NCAA -- read: college football and men's basketball -- to grow up. In the presently pitched courtroom battle of the disingenuous known as the O'Bannon v. NCAA antitrust class action lawsuit, the NCAA's already tattered credibility is hemorrhaging, and that is good news for young athletes and folks who appreciate gestures aimed at advancing toward equity and fairness in games that have long graduated from amateur to big business.

[+] EnlargePat Haden
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsUSC AD Pat Haden says moving to four-year scholarships for football and basketball will help 'refocus on student-athlete welfare.'
Take USC, which on Monday announced that it will now offer "four-year athletic scholarships to all scholarship student-athletes in the revenue sports of football and men's and women's basketball in lieu of the current practice of offering one-year renewable scholarships."

"In taking this action, USC hopes to help lead the effort to refocus on student-athlete welfare on and off the field," athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement.

First of all, we should not get carried away with this decision, which will be effective July 1. While this is unquestionably a positive move and a benefit for revenue sports athletes at USC, it's also mostly about being proactive and getting some good publicity, not institutional sacrifice.

For one, most schools, including USC, haven't been ruthlessly Machiavellian about the one-year deals. If an athlete signs, stays out of trouble and is positive in the locker room, it's rare for a school to cut him or her loose just because he or she falls short of athletic expectations.

Sure, some coaches get creative with practices that amount to cutting players. More than a few of those "injury retirements" are mutual separations between athlete and team that allow said athlete to remain on full scholarship as a student. Sure, a coach is more likely to dismiss a 20-year-old sophomore bench warmer after a citation as a minor in possession of a beer than he is a star who gets hauled off to jail for a more serious offense. And, sure, a new coach sometimes makes a few statement cuts after his first spring practices to send a message about there being a new sheriff in town.

But, really, those one-year scholarships have been typically treated as four-year agreements.

Moreover, a four-year scholarship doesn't exempt an athlete from academic and behavioral standards. Know that star players will continue to be favored with more protection than marginal contributors, whatever the scholarship papers say.

Still, this is a savvy move by Haden and USC. The Trojans' athletic department will get a headline that celebrates it for fighting the good fight, for making the life of a student-athlete at USC just a little bit better, a little more secure. When you cut to the chase, that really has been what all this ominous talk -- in some quarters -- about unionizing and pay-for-play has been about: Giving athletes a better deal.

Haden, a former star QB at USC as well as a Rhodes Scholar who made big bucks in the private sector, has long been an advocate of giving athletes a better deal, though he also is adamant that it can be done without athletes unionizing and receiving salaries. As the Big Five conferences -- Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 -- take irrevocable steps toward more autonomy, expect to see more individual institutions look to set their own rules. These new rules, by the way, will be about finding a competitive edge as much as nobility of purpose.

For example, while USC doesn't recruit many athletes who worry about being cut or the length of their scholarship term, it is one more selling point Steve Sarkisian can bring into an athlete's living room. It's fair to assume that more than a few mommies and daddies will like the idea of a four-year promise over a one-year one.

USC isn't alone. Northwestern administrators quickly responded on Twitter on Monday that the Wildcats have been doing four-year deals since 2012 for all sports. Kudos.

The question now is whether four-year scholarships become a rule or, at least, a popular standard, or if you see a diversity of approaches among institutions in the Big Five conferences.
The Pac-12 typically plays a rugged nonconference schedule, but the 2014 slate is, well, only fair to middling.

There's a true marque national game -- Michigan State at Oregon -- and there are three matchups with Notre Dame. But there aren't a whole lot of ranked foes from other areas of the country on the slate.

Here's how we'd rank the Pac-12's best nonconference games in 2014.

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6): It's a top-10 -- perhaps even top-five -- matchup that looks like a Rose Bowl. Or a College Football Playoff semifinal. The Spartans shut down Stanford in the Rose Bowl in January and are eyeballing even bigger things this fall. Like the Ducks.

2. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4): This has become a strong, national rivalry. The last time the Cardinal was in South Bend, the ending was highly controversial -- the Fighting Irish wouldn't have played for the 2012 national title without a boost from the officials. This game likely reveals if one or the other is a CFP candidate.

3. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29): It remains the greatest intersectional rivalry in college sports. It would be a good idea for first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian to win this one. A good way to win over his fan base.

4. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8): The Fighting Irish tried to get out of this game. They also beat the Sun Devils last year. Arizona State should be plenty motivated in front of what is certain to be a packed house.

5. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas): Texas is breaking in new coach Charlie Strong in what is really a glorified home game. UCLA is only trying to announce itself as a national title contender. While the Longhorns are down, they won't lack talent.

6. Utah at Michigan (Sept. 20): Here's a good way for the Utes to announce their return to relevance -- a trip to the Big House. Utah certainly won't be intimidated. It won in Ann Arbor 25-23 in 2008 on its way to an undefeated season. It also lost 10-7 in 2002.

7. California at Northwestern (Aug. 30): Sonny Dykes wants to get his second season off with a bang. This is a good -- and winnable -- opportunity to do just that.

8. Rutgers vs. Washington State (Aug. 28, CenturyLink Field, Seattle): The Cougars are eyeballing a breakthrough season. It will be hard to do that with an opening loss to a Big Ten team. Yes, Rutgers is now a Big Ten team.

9. Illinois at Washington (Sept. 13): The Illini don't seem too scary, but they are a Big Ten team. They didn't make things too easy on the Huskies last year, either.

10. BYU at California (Nov. 29): We've already noted how nice it would be for Dykes to get his second season off to a fast start. What about a strong finish?
This week, we've looked at the worst offenses and defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013 and speculated on which is most likely to take a step forward this fall.

We broke things down. Now it's your turn to pick which team you think is headed for better things in 2014. We polled defense Thursday, and now it's time for offense.

Here's the North Division offensive breakdown. And here's the South.

Here's the North Division graphic.


And here's the South.


There is one problem.

Our poll tool only allows for five choices, so obviously one team must be eliminated. So goodbye to Stanford, which played pretty good offense last fall and is replacing four O-line starters as well as running back Tyler Gaffney. Our expectation -- and we're forcing it down your throats! -- is the Cardinal might score a few more points per game in 2014 because of an improved passing attack, but Stanford isn't a team that obsesses about scoring more than, say, 35 because it pretty much plays to its defense in the fourth quarter.

SportsNation

Which struggling Pac-12 offense is most likely to improve in 2014?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    44%
  •  
    18%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,612)

So who might improved the most?

California welcomes back pretty much its entire unit, and it should benefit from true sophomore QB Jared Goff and company having a full year in Sonny Dykes' system.

Washington State scored 31 points per game last season, and with a bevy of talent back to run Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, this could be the Cougars' breakthrough year. After his first season at Texas Tech, Leach's offenses averaged more than 35 points per game in eight of the next nine seasons, three times eclipsing the 40-point threshold.

While USC is adopting a new, up-tempo attack under new coach Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans have plenty of talent and could pile up points. The only question is the O-line.

Just like USC, Utah and Colorado welcome back their starting quarterbacks -- assuming that Utes QB Travis Wilson gets a clean bill of health. The Buffaloes have to figure out how to replace wide receiver Paul Richardson's production, while the Utes should greatly benefit from the return of wide receiver Kenneth Scott, who missed the 2013 season with a knee injury.

So, which team do you think shows the most improvement on offense in 2014?

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