8 games in, time for a look-see

They've played 8 games now under a new coach, the same as last year's Trojans played under Ed Orgeron. So how is it working out?

SPOKANE, Wash. -- On the way to the Palouse only with a slight detour in our regular game-day ritual. We'll maybe not spend as much time -- if any -- on Washington State's Cougars.

That's for Sark and these coaches and players Saturday (1:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) in Pullman. They know their job. Getting it done the next two games against Washington State and Cal, well, we say it every weekend: This is the one that matters most. And of course, it is.

Get to 7-3 (6-2 in the Pac-12) and make it to the UCLA game while maybe Utah and Arizona come through for you. Who knows. Longer shots have hit, just ask Arizona State and Utah. And who doesn't want a chance to derail Notre Dame's playoff ambitions in the Coliseum to finish up Sark's first regular season.

It doesn't get any better than that. Get a run going. See where it ends up. Start playing 60 minutes and see how that goes.

But we're eight games into 2014 and it's impossible not to ask the question that politicans are also asking thiis final weekend before Tuesday's elections.

Are you better off -- is USC better off -- after eight games in 2014 than you -- and USC -- were after eight games with Ed Orgeron and Co. taking over last October.

Nothing wrong with asking the question It's a natural. Those first eight games then against the first eight games of Sark's tenure. That's the way sports works. We're always comparing and competing. Who's better? How and why? And where do we go from here?

Now this isn't about bringing out the haters -- you know who you are. If you mention Ed's tenure at Ole Miss in the first paragraph of evaluating CEO's amazing work here a year ago, well, you just might be one of them.

If you're shouting "Sark must go . . . what were they thinking?" . . . well, he's not going. That's for sure what they're thinking. But to step back and evaluate where things are -- and were -- and why, might not be the worst thing to do. As we said, eight games in seems about right.

Are the Trojans better off?

Probably not. Ed went 6-2 against a schedule with a No. 4 Stanford, UCLA and Notre Dame and fewer players. Sark is a struggling 5-3 in a start that's come oh so close to being one of the stories of the year, along with Mississippi State, if every bounce had gone his way, which it hasn't, and USC would have been luckier than it had a right to ever expect.

Sark has had two wins over ranked teams, deserving great credit, but also three losses he shouldn't have that will be hard to get past. And much of that is of Sark's doing or undoing, he'll admit.

Just as if you ask Ed, he'll tell you if only they'd reworked the defensive gameplan to stop UCLA's Brett Hundley on the quarterback draw, well, we might not be having this discussion, no matter how far down the road USC was to signing up Sark.

But there's no going back and that's not the purpose here. Is this team better coached? Probably not. The coaching staff -- and the starters -- are younger. There's more talent to coach. But maybe there's a need for that kind of player-to-player, coach-to-coach and player-to-coach and dare we say it, team-to-fan bonding that took place a year ago.

It was magical in some ways. Those coaches could have spent the rest of the year resume-polishing and calling for jobs after Lane was sent packing but they spent it coaching like they'd never coached in their lives, they'll tell you to a man. And the players realized it.

So did those coaches, veterans so many of them, knowing that what was happening was special, maybe once-in-a-lifetime stuff, lightning in a bottle.

But what was so special was that it really wasn't about those coaches at the time. "It's your team," Orgeron told the Trojans. "What are you going to make of it?"

Maybe some of that could help today. Some sideline maturity. Some sense of been there, done that. Our job is to get out of the way and let you players play. Let you build that confidence and that bond so you really do believe, not hope, as Sark said.

When it's crunch time, you have to know you're going to win. That you deserve to win. It didn't always happen but that's what set Pete's teams apart. They knew they were the chosen ones. So did last year's guys in a way. They ran out of players at Notre Dame. And ran out of gameplan against UCLA.

.

Not that it's going to be easy for a young staff to gain that kind of experience. But Pete stepped away, figured it out and came back and did it. So did Ed, after Ole Miss. Ask him sometime, if you have the time. He'll tell you. Lots of thinking and reworking his approach.

Both came back way better for the step-back time. Sark hasn't had that time. He's gone right through six years and still is one of the NCAA's youngest big-time coaches. He's not there yet. His earnestness comes through as he tries to tell you of the need for belief not hope and then says he hopes he'll get the calls right when that time comes.

There's a presence in a football program that you can sense when it arrives. It's not the same everywhere for everybody. But you know it when you see it. Ed's team last year was getting there especially considering all the dificult circumstances.

During games, we only get down on the field for those last critical five minutes and we'll admit we've never seen anyhing like this season, as Sark himself has said. And as our Ryan Abraham so well explained in his odds-on losing piece about losing both Utah and ASU games the way USC did,

Would this team have a better record had Ed & Co. just been extended? Probably. Give Lane credit there. That was a heck of a staff. They got USC. They loved it here. Ask any one of them next time you run into them. There would have been no adjustment period.

They'd have probably saved some of the guys from making the leaving-early mistakes that Sark & Co. couldn't through no fault of their own. And with USC's numbers, that would have been critical. No learning curve either.

But this year's team carried on from last year and what you saw in the spring and summer was a hybrid, it seemed. A hard-working, players-driven team that wanted to build on 2013 and be really, really good that Sark allowed to be itself in many ways as he went uptempo with it, even if it hasn't stayed that way.

Are there second-guesses? Sure. This staff will cost millions more -- including buyouts and contract payoffs -- than extending last year's guys. And could a team anywhere with Ed Orgeron and Tee Martin ever be outrecruited?

So even if things didn't work out, the next coach would have been greeted by another top recruiting class, or several of them, as the one that greeted Sark has proved to be thanks to those who came before. Which was our position at the time.

But how to make use of any of this going forward, not looking back, is the question. The only one, really.

We think there's a way. Things happen. People come and go. Nothing is forever. USC is a special place. And as we've seen over the last dozen years, you just never really know what's around that next corner.

But there are some awfully special things that have happened here. figuring out how to replicate them might not be the worst thing anyone around here has ever done.

We'll leave you with Ed's quote to ESPN's SEC writer Chris Low, who spent time with Ed last weekend at his Mandeville, La. home watching college football.

"Ole Miss was a job. USC was my passion," Orgeron told Low. "USC will always be my school.

Indeed . . . passion plays well, even in laid-back LA.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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