Spring Ball: Why USC Trojans can be playoff contender in 2014

USC has the ability to win the Pac-12 in Steve Sarkisian's first season as head coach.

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It’s a new beginning for one of college football’s most storied programs. USC has new leadership with new schemes leading the Trojans into a season of new possibilities.

Each season still comes with uncertainties — how young players will adjust to life at USC, how returning players will comprehend and execute new schemes, how a roster still fighting scholarship reductions will hold up against injuries – but I like USC’s potential in 2014 more than most.

What is the ceiling for the Trojans in Steve Sarkisian’s first year? Winning the Pac-12 South will not be out of the question, and if they do that, the Trojans will take a crack at the Pac-12 title and be well positioned for a berth in the new college football playoff.

I don’t expect Sark’s first year at USC to be an adjustment period. I expect the Trojans to be prominent contenders in their conference and on a national scale. Here are a few reasons why.

The offense will be revitalized

USC is traditionally a power, pro-style football program, but watching the offense the past few years was like watching a team loaded with world-class sprinters being forced to run a marathon. That won’t be the case now.

When you think of Sarkisian’s offensive evolution, think of time and space. He’ll kick-start USC’s offense into high gear – aiming to run 85 plays per game in an up-tempo scheme (Washington averaged 82 last year compared to USC’s 68) – while spreading the defense out to give his best playmakers a lot of space to maneuver.

Spring Ball 2014

He’ll attack with multiple personnel groupings out of multiple formations with minimal shifts and motions. There will be packages designed around specific players at specific times, with the goal being to put playmakers in position to maximize their ability.

The up-tempo aspect of Sark’s scheme puts the offense at an advantage by forcing defenses to use less of their playbook, disguise less and blitz less. I used to hate playing against no-huddle schemes in the NFL – not only were we at a disadvantage schematically, but it wears you down! This will help Cody Kessler and Max Browne in particular, the front-runners for the starting quarterback job, because the scheme makes defenses simplify.

Sarkisian is respected as a QB developer, but he still places an emphasis on the running game, having produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his five seasons at UW. The spacing in his scheme will now benefit USC’s impressive stable of running backs.

Last year, USC’s ground attack ranked 59th in the nation at 172 yards per game, led by Buck Allen (785 yards, 5.8 average). Tre Madden (703, 5.1), Justin Davis (6.8) and Ty Isaac (5.9) are returning as well. By spreading defenses out with pre-snap alignments, Sarkisian will create running lanes for his backs. Like Baylor and Oregon, his schemes often force defenders to make one-on-one tackles in space against his best athletes.

With ever-rising speedster star Nelson Agholor threatening the back end of the defense at wide receiver, expect to see an absurd amount of production on the ground by USC this year. This will be a multi-dimensional offense with pro-style roots in an up-tempo, no-huddle philosophy. Buckle up, Los Angeles.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor is going to be a star in Steve Sarkisian’s new system.

Wilcox picks up where Pendergast left off

Not giving credit to former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast for the resurrection of USC’s defense last year – it ranked 20th in yards per play (4.98) — would be a great disservice.

I played opposite Pendergast-coached teams in the NFL, and he has always been a highly respected leader. He inherited one of the worst defenses statistically in USC history and ran a disruptive 5-2 scheme that produced Top 25 rankings in eight categories, including total defense, sacks and points allowed.

While it could be considered a great loss not having Pendergast around, returning players had the opportunity to learn from Pendergast and now will get to learn from Justin Wilcox — one of the brightest up-and-coming coaches in college football.

One quality I like about Wilcox as a defensive coordinator is he’s not afraid to diversify his method of attack. He will not handcuff his talent by confining them to only one type of defensive front. He will run 3-4 principles — so there will be some carryover principles for those who played in Pendergast’s 5-2 last season – and mix in 4-3 principles when it best suits his personnel based on the offense they are facing. He’s a brilliant teacher with a great ability to relate to his players.

Wilcox will have to fill several voids after key players left for the NFL. The two anchors of the front seven will be All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams (13.5 tackles for loss with six sacks in ’13) and returning leading tackler Hayes Pullard roaming behind him at linebacker.

Josh Shaw (four interceptions in ’13) will be a commanding force in the secondary, while Wilcox will likely see Su’a Cravens, a freshman All-American last season, as a disruptive, play-making hybrid safety-linebacker who could be used much like standout Shaq Thompson was used at Washington. Some key pieces are there, but Wilcox’s ability to develop younger and unproven talent quickly will be paramount.

Regardless of the personnel, though, Wilcox’s defense will always be an attacking, physical bunch. One of my favorite squads to watch on tape last year, the Huskies had a lot of bark and bite on the defense – always flying to the football with bad intentions and finishing fourth in the nation with 41 sacks. With the talented athletes Wilcox inherits at USC, we’ll see more of this attacking style with more man-to-man coverage in the secondary.

The schedule sets up for success

For USC to be in the playoff discussion, it will likely have to win its league. Luckily, the schedule is favorable for the Trojans to make a run at the Pac-12 title this season.

Within the South division they’ll face Arizona State and Colorado at home while traveling to Arizona, Utah and across town to UCLA. They drew Stanford (road game in Week 2), Oregon State, Washington State and Cal out of the North, missing both Oregon and Washington. Their out-of-conference games include their opener with Fresno State on Aug. 20 at home, a road trip to Boston College and the season finale with Notre Dame on Nov. 29. The trip to Stanford looks like the toughest game and could determine the trajectory of the season.

The schedule isn’t easy, but it could be much worse. Also helping the Trojans is that no league competitor is without questions.

The Cardinal return only five starters on offense – losing running back Tyler Gaffney’s 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns (plus one receiving) — and had key departures on defense, including Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Oregon State returns senior Sean Mannion, who threw for almost three miles worth of yardage last year, but his star receiver Brandin Cooks will be blazing turf in the NFL. The Beavers face the challenge of finding some semblance of a run game this season, too.

Arizona State will be another formidable challenge with offensive studs DJ Foster, Jalen Strong and quarterback Taylor Kelly all returning. But the big question mark looming above Sparky’s head is how will they reload a defense losing a majority of its starters?

UCLA returns the outstanding Brett Hundley at quarterback and has only two major key departures on offense — WR Shaq Evans and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo – but its defense will be the big uncertainty. After boasting one of the best front-sevens in the country the past couple of years, UCLA loses Jordan Zumwalt, Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh and Keenan Graham.

I expect shootouts from the always scrappy Rich Rodriguez-run Arizona Wildcats and Mike Leach-lead Washington State Cougars, but Arizona must replace quarterback B.J. Denker and running back Ka’Deem Carey while Leach is still trying to build the Cougs into a program that can compete nationally. Cal, Utah and Colorado are the only other remaining teams on the Trojans’ schedule and while they will be more competitive than last season, it’s another rebuilding year.

Su’a Cravens had a standout freshman season and is one to watch under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

2014 and beyond

The good news for USC fans: The Trojans will be good this year, but it’s only the beginning. Sarkisian has proven to be capable of building a program, and the resources he has at USC are the kind only a few programs can match.

Sarkisian inherited a Washington program that went 12-47 in the five seasons before he arrived – including 0-12 the year before his arrival – and lead the Huskies to a 35-29 record in the next five while watching their recruiting ranking soar from 68th nationally in ’09 to 18th last season. If Washington football was a stock, it would be trending upward because of Sarkisian and his staff.

Applying his recruiting ability to USC, which has seen its ranking dip from fourth to 13th in the last five seasons, will be the rock of its future. I spoke with Yogi Roth of the Pac-12 Network, someone I greatly respect and who coached beside Sarkisian at USC from 2005-09, the last two as the assistant quarterbacks coach. He has a great pulse for Sarkisian and the advantages he has in this area at USC.

“The story and narrative of Steve Sarkisian in Los Angeles has been around for a long time,” Roth said. “He doesn’t have to build relationships from scratch. The schools that Sark is recruiting right now, he played against them when he was in high school. Players that he played against are now coaching at the same schools that Sark is walking the hall to recruit. Look at the roster he was building at UW. He’s been recruiting LA for years.”

Sarkisian is off to a great start, locking in the Pac-12’s top recruiting class this year with 19 new members, including two five-stars and nine four-stars. He has a likable personality that allows him to connect with people, and while he’s not Pete Carroll, those familiar with both coaches say they are similar in this way.

That will bode well for Sarkisian and he builds USC back up and elevates it to the national level it has occupied for so long, beginning in 2014.

Coy Wire is a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes CFB and NFL for FOXSports.com. He played college ball at Stanford before spending nine years in the NFL with Buffalo and Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.