2014 stories, 2015 lessons

Here they are in order and ranked for their impact on next season, the Top 10 USC football stories of 2014 and what we can learn from them.

Now we know the Top 10 Trojans football stories of 2014, but what do they mean? What do they tell us? What do we learn from them?

A lot, actually. But first we have to put Steve Sarkisian's Season No. 1 into some sort of order that tells us that story.

In this week after USC fans were able to sit back and watch the from the sidelines as the elite programs played out the first round of the College Football Playoffs and wonder when does USC return to relevance?

The answer is pretty much in these Top 10 stories -- how they played out, and why, and what does USC do about it.

In looking back at our Top 10, we've reworked them into a rational account of 2014, combining some of them, as we put them in the order of their impact and importance as we look to 2015.

1. National Signing Day Coup

Start with the absolute best part of the year, even if we have to go back to February to find it. The way Steve Sarkisian and Co., most of whom had not recruited at this level in their careers, picked up where Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron left off. A very hopeful sign that seems to be playing out now a year later. Getting Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama on National Signing Day set the tone for a season that would both need, and incorporate successfully, a freshman class that would provide seven rookie starters and amazing star power for a scholarship-limited program that sorely needed it.

Add Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao, Bryce Dixon and John Plattenburg to the mix and February's NSD was the gift that kept on giving through the end of December. But the best thing about it was not so much what it said about Sark & Co's ability to learn how to close on the fly, because recruiting is really a USC thing. The history and tradition, that NFL Draft and Hall of Fame roster unmatched in college football, the geography and demography, does that for USC. But what 2014 might have done even more was show that Sark could get those freshmen up to speed since he really had no choice.

That deserves all sorts of credit. It will pay off in the years to come with these players and the next classes of recruits who realize that if they're good enough, they'll get their shot too.

LESSON FOR 2015: At USC, it always starts with recruiting. If you can't recruit here, you can't be here.

2./3. Farm Win Puts USC Into Top 10/Red Bandanna Nightmare

We put these two stories from eight days in September into one, one that pointed out the highs and lows, the ups and downs, that were to come. A conservative USC dodged how many bullets in holding off a self-destructive Stanford team that reached the Trojans 35-yard line on all nine drives only to score a mere 10 points despite USC scoring just 13 themselves. Did the young Trojans and their young coaching staff take all the wrong lessons the next week as they headed to Boston with their No. 9 ranking and a major slowdown in the uptempo attack they'd practiced in spring, summer and August?

That question, and the 37-31 loss to an underdog Boston College, answers itself. Shocked by the way BC was running its option and knocked back on their heels by a veteran offensive line of fifth-year starters, USC squandered a 17-6 lead throwing the ball and tried to run it against an Eagles team loaded up to stop the run. With a rattled USC staff unable to make no adjustments on defense, the only shot would have been to keep throwing and win a shootout and figure out what to do against the option some other day.

But that was not to be. Instead of taking a fired-up crowd out of the game after having been brought together to honor a BC alum and 9-11 hero, USC played into the home team's hands by stagnating on offense and allowing itself to be pushed around to the tune of 452-20 yards on the ground in what turned into a tough man's game where talent took a back seat.

Trojans fans had been here before. It was Corvallis all over again, just on the East Coast. And a sign of the difficulties this team and this staff would have making the right decisions about the direction to go in games when circumstances didn't go as planned.

LESSON FOR 2015: Know who you are, believe in what you do and don't give in or give up. But be prepared to adapt -- just always to your strengths. You're USC. You can do it. Really.

4. Jael Mary

Much as had happened under Pete Carroll with upsets costing the Trojans a national championship shot, a Game 5 collapse the final three minutes in the Coliseum against a backup Arizona State quarterback with a two-score lead cost USC its first-ever Pac-12 South title.

The litany of mistakes -- from Kevon Seymour's incredible decision to try to jump a route and miss to not being able to get a single first down that would have sealed the deal to not having a long-snapper ready to go or even getting the right call on the game's final play so that middle linebacker Hayes Pullard wasn't the man closest to Jaelen Strong and the football at the goal line, the 38-34 loss at ASU in a game USC should have won by double digits was the textbook example of how not to finish out a football game.

But in terms of keeping USC relevant in the postseason, this major fail by the coaches, and players, at crunch time managed to do just that. USC would get one more shot as it turned out and come up very much short against UCLA. But for all practical purposes, what could have been a special season for Sark & Co. ended Oct. 4.

LESSON FOR 2015: See above. Same lesson. And if it's the only lesson learned in 2014, it will make it as worthwhile a "teachable moment," as Sark has said it was.

5. 4th Quarter Frustrations

The "Jael Mary" game, unfortunately, wasn't a one-off in 2014 but more of a tipoff. A USC team that would play like gangbusters in the first quarter, outscoring opponents 167-53 the first 15 minutes of each game, would be outscored 86-66 in the fourth quarter. And while scoring in every single first quarter while not allowing a single score to opponents on their first possession, USC would be shut out in six of its 13 final quarters. Which helps explain how Arizona almost came back to beat USC after trailing 28-13 going into the final 15 minutes. A missed 36-yard field goal saved the stalled Trojans this time.

But not at Utah, where USC, despite a 21-17 lead and the ball deep in Utah territory with two downs to get two yards at the Utes' 27 inside of the final three minutes, managed to neither make a first down to win the game -- or a stop a game-winning length-of-the-field drive. No answers on offense or defense, not in the fourth quarter anyway. This USC team, coaches and players together, didn't do that.

Only against clearly outclassed teams like Cal, where USC led 31-9 and held on for a 38-30 win, and Nebraska, where a 45-27 fourth-quarter lead turned into a 45-42 squeaker with another Hail Mary to defend, did USC survive. For Sark, after the Holiday Bowl, that seemed to be real progress even if it wasn't a Pac-12 South team from what we now know was the toughest division in all of college football. Although that clearly is to be determined by how this plays out in 2015. Did this team, and these coaches, learn their lessons? Will they be able to finish out games? Can the way they play to open most games carry through to the finish? Can in-game adjustments match the opening-game gameplanning?

All we know for certain from 2014 are the questions. The answers will have to come in 2015. As we saw in the Holiday Bowl, the issues are still there. Nebraska just wasn't quite good enough. But a Pac-12 South with five teams that won nine or more games in 2014 is not a Nebraska team with a dismissed coaching staff. Jim Mora, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham and Kyle Whittingham have teams that will play 60 minutes as they've proved. Can USC do the same?

LESSON FOR 2015: Again, we repeat ourselves here. You are who you are and what you do. Be ready to do it. And be ready to be challenged. And be ready to have your players in place to make the plays that matter. Free them to be USC.

6. Kessler Crushes Irish

The comeback after the UCLA loss for a near-record romp against archrival Notre Dame gives us an insight into the character of these Trojans, many of whom will get to go back to South Bend for the first time and show what they're made of in 2015. They did keep bouncing back. Of course the hope next season is they don't have to do that so often. That they keep playing fast, keep attacking, keep going uptempo, keep using the weapons of Cody Kessler & Co. (six TD passes on 372 yards passing) as they did for that 49-14 romp over an Irish program whose full-scholarship roster wasn't able to finish up nearly as well as USC's with 30 or so fewer originally recruited players. But for those who say that ND win mattered little against an Irish team down in the dumps, that same Notre Dame team did go on to beat LSU in its bowl game.

LESSON FOR 2015: Beating Notre Dame any time, anywhere, matters. Just as this one did to save the 2014 season. Now on to South Bend.

7. Josh Shaw Story

It was hard to know which part of the Josh Shaw story was more sad -- that it happened at all or that it was unable to be resolved before doing so much damage to Josh in his final season and to a USC program so in need of his senior leadership. Of course the lessons are many. That the story wasn't really believed internally, requiring so many questioning sessions with Josh, should have been the first tipoff: Do not push it out there -- no matter what. But once USC was a part of the problem in disseminating a story that took over the nation's college football news for a couple of days, for good and then bad, USC should have been more proactive in helping.

That Josh had no history with the new staff coming in might have been anticipated. That's one of the downsides of a wholesale coaching change. Having Josh on board for most of the season, as he should have been, would have changed much -- and maybe a couple of outcomes.

LESSON FOR 2015: And far beyond 2015 and for well beyond Josh, who has clearly had to confront his own teachable moment. But for USC football, when you've been part of the problem, when you've made something worse by not seeing the reality and protecting the student, even a fifth-year senior, from his own immature actions, you have a responsibility to make it right. USC should not have allowed this to play out at whatever pace the LAPD and DA's office chose to move it. There was no there there and the penalty should not have been a 10-game, nearly three-month suspension as USC waited, choosing bureaucracy over advocacy. Next time, maybe.

8. Halloween Comes Early for NCAA in Court

They say they're turning over a new leaf and they're really, really going to try to be transparent just not right now and not with those 700 pages of emails and other testimony the NCAA filed in their fruitless attempt to get Todd McNair's lawsuit thrown out. And with the cooperation of the sloooooowwwwwwww-moving California courts, who knows how long they can stall. And all the while saying how much they want to be "as transparent as they can be." In other words, NOT AT ALL. WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER YOU'LL FIND THIS OUT.

LESSON FOR 2015: The emails are probably coming out. And they're not going to be good for the NCAA. And for USC, continuing to hope they won't come out probably is no longer the way to operate here. Get out ahead of this. Demand to see the NCAA emails without waiting for the Court. If the NCAA won't give them to USC, stake a position in advance of their release based on Judge Frederick Schaller's ruling. Demand that the NCAA immediately allow USC to get to 85 scholarships if it wants for 2015, retract all the record-book penalties and drop any probationary limitations -- along with an apology. In exchange, USC agrees to hold to its pledge not to sue the NCAA for the considerable damage the NCAA's conspiracy has cost the university.

9. Big Leonard Williams Plays Through

Can't say enough good things about BLW's time here. We'll mis him, miss that big smile, that love for the game, that genuine camaraderie he brought to the Trojan family -- and all that talent combined with all that effort. Leonard could well be the best defensive lineman USC has seen and it's too soon for him to go. But he has to go. And we'll have someone special to root for on Sunday -- and on Draft day.

LESSON FOR 2015: Keep recruiting Florida -- and big, athletic defensive linemen who can play and want to play. The two go hand in hand here.

10. LenDale White . . . Unwanted

The big question during the Colorado Homecoming game was who sent the sideline credential to LenDale White after what he'd been tweeting about firing USC coaches without also arranging for a minder. We ran into LenDale after the game still talking and tweeting at the USC bench as the players went by, mostly saying a friendly "Hi." "Stop tweeting, now" we told LenDale with a big grin, but meaning it. "You're only going to get yourself in trouble." Well, that didn't take long. While we were doing postgame interviews, LenDale was being escorted off the premises by the uniformed security guys. And USC had another PR black eye from the video that got USCFootball.com the most hits of the year. If there's any meaning here, it's that LenDale will always be LenDale. And USC will apparently always be USC.

LESSON FOR 2015: If you let LenDale loose on the sideline, keep an eye on him. Maybe with a former teammate. But whatever you do, don't let him go unescorted up the tunnel. As we noted on his exit, there were no USC administrators anywhere near the scene. Not sure where they were. But we know where one or several of them should have been -- talking to LenDale. Like we tried to do. This isn't rocket science. You knew he was coming. You knew he was there. Take care. It's LenDale and he has a phone in his hands.

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

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