There's a re-evaluation right now of how the 2015 season is going to play out for USC's Trojans. Gone, at least a bit, is the euphoria of January and that first ESPN "Way Too Early Top 25" that had the Trojans No. 4 for the fall and nicely ensconced in the second four-team College Football Playoffs.
Cool, USC fans figured. High expectations are better than no or low ones. With the sanctions behind us, that sounds good.
But since then, the Trojans' arrow has been trending down in most places even if the re-worked ESPN "Too Early Top 25" picks drops USC to fifth. The problem with that latest USC No. 5 pick is that Oregon is the team leapfrogging USC into the Top Four at No. 3 and that would mean no Trojans in the CFB Playoffs.
But those ESPN predictions are positively positive compared to what some others in the college football punditry are saying about USC right now. While ESPN still has USC as No. 5 in the nation, SI.com's Ben Glicksman has the Trojans No. 5 -- in the Pac-12 in his rankings.
"Based on the eye test alone," Glicksman writes, "USC appears to have the players necessary to make a run at a 2015 playoff berth. Quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Juju Smith (nine catches for 152 yards in the spring game) and safety Su'a Cravens are all bona fide stars. The problem? Despite the end of NCAA sanctions dating back to the Reggie Bush case, the Trojans still lack depth, especially on defense. USC’s return to glory—it hasn’t finished in the top five of the AP Poll since '08—is within reach, but a schedule that includes games versus Stanford, Arizona State, Washington and Notre Dame by mid-October will be formidable."
Those rankings have USC behind Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona. Although any list that has Baylor No. 2 with Auburn and Alabama Nos. 3 and 4, Notre Dame No. 7 and UCLA No. 8 is not exactly one you'd take to Las Vegas.
The well-respected Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com has the Trojans at No. 8 in his Top 25, down from No. 6 before a spring practice devoid of injuries and regarded as pretty successful.
Here's Dodd's take: "8. USC: Steve Sarkisian actually took the field for a game last year with 44 scholarship players. In the end, he won the third-most games ever by a first-year USC coach (nine). Welcome to your Pac-12 and CFP dark horse. Cody Kessler (39 touchdown passes) was completely overshadowed by Marcus Mariota last season. Also, watch Adoree Jackson -- all over the field. Pre-spring: No. 6."
Dodd seems to express what many are thinking: Did we like USC a bit too much? Are the Trojans really playoff worthy?
The questions are many now that the NFL Draft is over and they start with how does USC replace the six drafted players including four in the first four rounds including first-rounders Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor? Has the NCAA-sanctions-limited talent pipeline re-filled itself yet?
Then there's this: Can USC handle a schedule that a smart analyst like Phil Steele dubs No. 2 in the nation with road games at Oregon and Arizona State in addition to Notre Dame in a 12-game schedule that could have six ranked teams ready to take on the Trojans.
Then there's surviving the Pac-12 South, college football's strongest division, which starts the season with maybe as many as five Top 25 teams.
Then there are the offensive questions. Does USC's young talent step in at wide receiver where three of the top four are gone and does the young talent in the offensive line make the step up this season? Both of those could happen, everyone agrees, but will they?
Good questions all. With answers only this USC team and coaching staff can respond to in a way that matters.
But if we were pushed to describe the No. 1 question facing this USC team for this season, the one in the back of everyone's mind, it's this: Is Steve Sarkisian up to the challenge? Not so much coaching a big-time college program but coaching a USC program?
Sark has never had a double-digit win season in his six years as a college head coach. Certainly he had the chance last fall with USC's 9-4 bunch but those end-game fails against Arizona State and Utah and the total fail at Boston College intervened.
And for a team to win its way to the top of the Pac-12 South, then win the conference and find its way into the College Football Playoffs, there can be none of that. But is Sark -- and are his fairly young staffers -- up to it this fall?
That is the question. It's a question they don't have to answer at Ohio State and Alabama -- two of college football's top jobs along with USC. It's one that until they get there, the folks at places like Oregon and TCU and Auburn have questions as well. But those jobs aren't the USC job.
With Texas, and the above-mentioned Alabama and Ohio State, they're the Big Four in college football. And all four require a coach who fits the bill -- one of the top four coaches going.
And yet, when we look at the latest ranking to come out, Athlon's List of top Pac-12 coaches in order, Sark isn't in the top four in his own league much less the nation. In fact, he's in the bottom four in his own league.
Not that the Athlon list is definitive in any way. How do you rank the Pac-12 with a roster probably unsmatched in college football in terms of its diverse coaching talent? You probably can't argue with their top two -- Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez -- as a close 1-2.
But after Stanford's David Shaw at No. 3, the rankings get a little squirelly. Chris Petersen, whose Boise days seem to get counted here over a very unimpressive Year 1 at Washington, and the new guy at Oregon State, Gary Andersen by way of Utah State and Wisconsin, are fourth and sixth with Utah's Kyle Whittingham, who's had his good moments and the not-so-good without many big-name recruits, in between.
That gets us to the surprisingly downgraded duo of Oregon's Mark Helfrich at No. 7, with not much credit for his CFB Playoff title game run a year ago and UCLA's Jim Mora at No. 8, and not getting much credit for the way his Bruins have handled USC, a feat he hasn't seemed to manage against anyone else.
Here's Athlon's take: By this time next year, Sarkisian could rank higher on this list – if USC ends up winning the Pac-12 as the early odds for 2015 suggest. Sarkisian’s first year with the Trojans had its share of ups and downs. USC beat Stanford 13-10 in Week 2 but lost 37-31 at Boston College the following Saturday. The Trojans lost on the last play of the game to Arizona State and in the final seconds to Utah. With better depth due to the end of NCAA scholarship sanctions, USC should have the manpower needed to close the door in tight games. Prior to taking over at USC, Sarkisian went 35-29 at Washington and guided the Huskies to four consecutive bowl games from 2010-13. The challenge for Sarkisian is simple: Get USC back among the nation’s elite and contend for national championships. Is he the right coach to do so?
There you have it. Athlon ends its Sark evaluation with a question mark. That's how many at USC see it. Is he the guy? Lucky for Sark after two years of showing he can recruit like a USC coach must, we'll get to find out if he can coach at that championship level a USC coach must at.
For Pete Carroll and John McKay, it happened right away. Pete's breakthrough came in Year 2, his first national championship in Year 3. For McKay, the breakthrough and first national championship came in Year 3.
Against the second toughest schedule in the nation in the toughest division in college football, Sark will have the chance to show what he can do in Year 2. Same for his USC staff, which has been recruiting players by telling them they'll be coming here competing for a national championship, nothing less.
Sure, there may not be the depth there will be in a year or two, but the talent here doesn't take a backseat to anyone. If the Trojans play with the confidence that these guys were recruited with, if they play aggressive on both sides of the ball, play up to their talent and play fast and play to win rather than trying not to lose, they'll have a shot.
So will Sark. For everybody involved, including those at USC who decided Sark was the man, this could not come at a better time.
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