Back where USC belongs

USC is starting out where they were always expected to be -- and now they're back -- for starters, anyway.

Just like old times. The Trojans picked to win the Pac-12. The media crowding around Steve Sarkisian, Cody Kessler and Su'a Cravens.

Even at lunch, where it was an informal sitdown at Friday's Pac-12 Media Days, Sark and later Cody and Su'a, had the large middle table, shaded under big umbrellas, with a standing room capacity of some 20 media types crowded around.

At the next table, a small round one in the sun, Oregon's Mark Helfrich, coming off the Ducks' Pac-12 title and national championship game -- walked in with four media members in tow.

Welcome back, USC. Not that the media vote means all that much, not with five Pac-12 South teams essentially in the Top 25 and coming off a year when anybody could beat anybody -- except for the USC gainst UCLA.

But it means something. It means that when folks look around and aren't sure how this is going to play out for lots of reasons, they'll go with talent and tradition. USC has it.

And in 12 of the last 15 seasons, the media has gotten it right. One of those misses was, however, that ill-fated 2012 Trojans team that started the season No. 1 in the nation and plunged out of sight.

Cody remembers. He was a redshirt freshman on that team. That's not going to happen with these guys. "They've worked too hard," he said. "And I know it's a cliche," he said, "but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

And the Trojans aren't dead yet. There's the veteran quarterback, dressed in all black, a Heisman candidate coming off a sensational statistical season.

There's Su'a Cravens, up to 232 pounds, and looking for all the world like the hybrid outside linebacker role he's embracing this season.

And yet much of the talk is about Adoree Jackson, much of it on questioning from national media wanting to know if he's really as special, unique, talented, smart, disciplined and gifted as it appears that he is.

He is, Sark says, with a Reggie Bush reference you never hear. And one that Sark wonders if it'll get him a call from Reggie.

"But when he gets the ball in his hands, he doesn't believe he's going to be tackled," Sark said of the reigning Pac-12 long jump champ and anchor on the Pac-12 4X100 relay winners. "He really believes he's going to score . . . and then he does it."

Which is what a great team needs, that special player no one has an answer for. Like Reggie.

But that's not what Kessler wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk of how hard this team has worked to get where it is. And that starts with "the highest GPA in the history of USC football," Kessler said of the 2.80 cumulative average this last semester.

That's just a sign of what they've been doing, Kessler said. But very much an indicator of this team's work ethic in a summer that moves from player-run practices to the real thing next Saturday.

"If we play like I know we can," Kessler said, "we'll be sitting pretty. Top 10 [right now] is cool. But we have nowhere to go but up."

Interesting way to put it.

Both players here defended their coach. A players coach, they said. A quarterbacks coach. Someone they wanted to play for and win for.

And their coach talked again and again of learning the lessons of last season, learning after the loss at Boston College after leading 17-0, and the losses on the last play of the game against Arizona State and Utah.

Again and again, those came up. How USC would have been in the championship game if they'd have closed out the two Pac-12 games.

"That was on us," Cody said of an offense that needed just one first down in the final minutes in opponent territory.

Or on Sark, who said he has to coach better. Call better plays. Get better execution.

No more talk, and there wasn't much, about not having the numbers with scholarships "in the mid-70s" now, Sark said. And with no thought to get to 85 for maybe two more seasons.

"We have plenty enough good players to win," Sark said, noting that even after three years of NCAA sanctions, "we still have the most active NFL players."

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at Top Stories