Looking ahead to next Monday's first USC August practice, we thought we might just look at where the Trojans are -- and wonder how in the heck they got there.
Consider this a Ripley's "Believe it or Not" moment, as we list the top 10 things we know, or think we know, about this 2014 USC football team that just should not be so.
We're talking the kinds of things that four years ago when the NCAA whacked USC and the Trojans' rivals started projecting the numbers out, it seemed almost too good to be true if you wanted the Trojans to go down.
To the USC-haters' great glee, it would go something like this. Graduations, transfers, injuries, NFL early departures and that limit of 15 new scholarship awards a year would, as we've seen, drive the Trojan scholarship numbers down into the mid-60s.
As they have.
What none of us realized was where this would leave USC all these years out. But here they are. And this we think represents what we could not have guessed. USC may have just 67 originally recruited scholarship players able to play right now, if everybody comes back healthy. But then there's this.
USC will also have:
1. MORE TOP PLAYERS than any team in the Pac-12. We're talking All-American candidates, guys who could or should leave early for the NFL not to mention your basic top 22, as Steve Sarkisian has contended all spring and summer. We agree although it should not be.
2. AND MORE TOP PLAYERS again, same standards as above, than most other teams in the nation except for Florida State. Again, how can that be? And even if it is, as former assistant John Baxter liked to say, talent by itself won't make any plays for you. It takes more than talent. But it's hard to make them if you don't have it.
3. A HALF-DOZEN FLORIDA PLAYERS better than the top half-dozen talents at Florida, Miami or even Florida State, in Leonard Williams, Buck Allen, Nelson Agholor, Claude Pelon, Leon McQuay III and Quinton Powell. Throw in SoCal guy but Florida transfer Josh Shaw and it's a no-brainer. Florida has been better to USC in the sanctions years than it has to its unsanctioned home-staters. Crazy.
4. AN ACTUAL TWO-DEEP DEFENSE which doesn't sound like all that big a deal but after a year when USC tried to survive with as few as 12/13/14 players on defense against the likes of Stanford, Notre Dame and UCLA, and with the overall numbers dropping a bit this fall, it's a very big deal. And no gimme. But if you go position by position, behind every starter it looks like there just might be a decent athlete with enough experience to step in. That realization changed Sark's mind about how good this team could be, he said, in mid-spring.
5. PLAY NUMBERS WILL BE WAY UP even if overall player numbers aren't. Not sure anyone could have guessed it would go this way. Although if Sark has his way, "We don't have to play fast," he said the other day, "it's just that we can." Get big a lead in the fouth quarter and watch this team slow WAAAYYY down.
6. MORE PLAYS, FEWER BUSTED PLAYS and no more average third-and-7.8 yards that had USC No. 117 in the nation for third-down-and-distance stats after so many odd calls and bad executions. Despite a younger O-line, this team will go faster and look like it knows what it's doing. Practicing the way you're going to play will do that for you no matter the numbers. Practicing twice as many plays per practice seals the deal here.
7. FEWER INJURIES, no really. This isn't a crapshoot, even teams with fewer bodies, and more plays, can have some control here with overall conditioning, daily running, weight training that's coordinated with actual position requirements and careful monitoring of recovery times. There is a way to do this. And we're betting USC benefits from the new regime here. Will the Trojans come close to Washington's single season-ending injury last fall? Maybe not but we're willing to bet they won't approach the 19 season-ending injuries USC suffered last season either.
8. MORE QUALITY RUNNING BACKS than any other team in the Pac-12 with a minimum of five -- three tailbacks and two fullbacks -- in the old terminology although Sark says he calls them all just plain old "running backs." So many, it turns out, USC could give one away to Notre Dame a year ago and another to Michigan this spring and still have this many left over. Again, who'd have guessed that would be possible? Teams with full scholarships can't do that and be in the shape USC is. And yet . . .
9. GOOD NUMBERS, BAD NUMBERS is how this one works. It goes both ways. That's because if things go right for USC, the Trojans could be one of the teams challenging the NFL's new rule that will limit the number of underclassmen allowed to get evaluations this season to five per school. USC could have twice that many interested, at least. And after a good year, if they take off, that could hurt USC's numbers and talent returning for next season far more than the sanctions did this season. But that's a worry for January.
10. JUST 2 LEFT BUT the coaching transition has been about as seamless as anyone could have hoped for. With the Trojans clearly on the right path, we didn't want to chance it back in December, especially keeping just two of the turnaround staff that these players had so bonded with. But after not the smoothest of starts, Sark listened to his players and made some excellent outside hires so, again, it doesn't seem like starting over even if it should.