Not all Trojans boosters were happy with the hiring of former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian, but the first-year USC coach inherits a talent-rich roster, which is always a good starting point. Quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Nelson Agholor and tailback Javorius Allen, all juniors, are back and should play well in Sarkisian's up-tempo, no-huddle style.
The 6'1", 210-pound Kessler struggled with consistency last season. He started all 14 games, completing 236 of 361 passes (65.4%) for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. But Sarkisian likes that Kessler saved his best for last (22 of 30 for 345 yards and four TDs in a 45--20 Las Vegas Bowl rout of Fresno State) and says that Kessler reminds him of former Trojans standout Mark Sanchez. The 6'1" Agholor (56 catches, 918 yards) has the unenviable task of trying to replace All-America Marqise Lee. Allen can be a major playmaker out of the backfield; last season four of his touchdowns came on runs of 43 yards or more.
Junior defensive end Leonard Williams anchors one of the best lines in the country, but USC will be learning its third scheme in three seasons. The secondary has question marks, and don't be surprised if true freshman Adoree' Jackson gets reps at corner—and at receiver.
A true freshman, Toa Lobendahn joins an offensive line that must replace three important contributors and reintegrate seven players who were out with injuries last season. The line was banged up much of the spring, and multiple starters did not participate in drills. A 6'3" 280-pounder, Lobendahn graduated from La Habra (Calif.) High early and enrolled at USC in the spring. He'll potentially start at guard.
USC opens against Fresno State, which won 11 games last year and is favored to be the Mountain West champion for the third consecutive season. A visit to Stanford on Sept. 6 will be another tough test. Fortunately for the Trojans, they avoid Pac-12 front-runner Oregon this year, as well as Washington, coach Steve Sarkisian's former employer. Nine of the 12 teams on USC's schedule played in a bowl last season, with four of those teams winning 10 or more games.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
I think [new coach Steve Sarkisian] will do a good job. He's put a really good staff together, and he coaches the quarterback position well. Fans and media are so quick to jump on a freshman or sophomore, but [quarterback Cody] Kessler was a baby playing the hardest position in the world [last year]. He grew into that spot nicely, and he was playing well at the end of the season. I think that kid is going to be so good; remember how everyone drooled over him coming out of high school? He'll get back to that.
It's hard to feel sorry for them with the sanctions and scholarship limits because you really play only 50, 55 guys a game—and they still have the best personnel in the conference. They're playing with five-stars at every spot. Every kid on their roster was recruited by almost every other school in their conference. Hell, even their second team was recruited by everyone else.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
SPECIAL TEAMS 88%
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (KESSLER)
JOHN E. MCGILLEN/USC ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT (LOBENDAHN)