<
>

Steve Sarkisian enters opportune time to put his stamp on program

5h

The 2015 season marks a big opportunity not only for the USC Trojans football team but for coach Steve Sarkisian as well.

For the man known far and wide as Sark, this year offers the best chance yet for him to show everyone he is ready to take that proverbial next step in his development as a head coach. It's not like his body of work to this point is without merit; after a record-setting career as a quarterback at BYU he served an apprenticeship at USC under Pete Carroll where he tutored a pair of Heisman-winning quarterbacks (Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart), had a relatively successful stint in his first head job at Washington before leading the Trojans to a nine-win season in his first year on the job at USC. I would challenge you to find many 41-year-old coaches around the country who can match that résumé.

The USC job, however, is judged a little different. For every amount of praise Sarkisian received for taking a Washington program that was winless the season before he arrived and took them to four straight bowl games, there is still the moniker that stuck with him of "Seven-win Sark." His win total in his initial season at USC was the most for a first-year USC coach since John Robinson in 1976 and some of the offensive numbers put together by the Trojans last season were pretty impressive, yet there remain skeptics who point to the overall management of the program that led to a series of close losses where coaching decisions came into play.

All of that, of course, is in the rear-view mirror and there are plenty of reasons for optimism when looking ahead, even while many USC fans are still taking a "wait-and-see" approach when it comes to completely buying in on Sark being the long-term choice for the job.

There is the matter of overall talent as the Trojans are loaded. The roster may not be back to the full 85-man limit but it's not far off, and the bodies that will be on the field are really good. Part of the reason for that talent has been recruiting, as Sark and his staff have shown to be very proficient in that area with a class that was ranked last year by multiple services as the best in the nation and one that is headed to similar heights this year.

There is the improved relationship between coaches and players, not only in terms of acceptance but in knowledge and communication as well. You can't overstate how emotionally raw the situation was when Sarkisian got the USC job over the immensely popular Ed Orgeron, yet Sark handled it with a deft touch and now seems to have won over the players who are quick to say that they are "all-in." That part is not a surprise as Sarkisian, for the most part, has an easy-going style that has always worked well with players. And there is no way to overcome the learning curve that must take place when a new staff comes in to learn players who are already on the roster, who fits the new system, what can they do, who fits where, etc. These are not unimportant items, and they raised their heads at times last year for the Trojans at inopportune times, but they are also in the past.

All of these reasons are part of why Sarkisian has used a talking point coming into the season that the future for the Trojans is ridiculously bright. And he's right, in many ways it is. He also talked last week at Pac-12 media days about how the reason he left a good job at Washington, and a reason why so many of the USC players turned down scholarship offers from other top schools, was the opportunity to compete for championships. Sark has not be shy about saying that is the goal for this program, and that leaves little doubt about how high the bar is now set.

The first goal, as Sarkisian stated last week, is to win the Pac-12 South division, which would mean a berth in the conference title game, something that has yet to happen for the Trojans. You can be sure that fans of the Cardinal and Gold have noticed the lack of an appearance in that game even if USC was ineligible to appear early on due to sanctions. The expectations are certainly there to advance to that level as evidenced by the fact the Trojans were projected to win the Pac-12 title in a preseason vote by conference media.

The schedule certainly plays out well for Sarkisian to have several chances to prove his coaching chops. There is the conference opener with a physical Stanford squad, a road trip to Tempe and a chance for redemption after the Hail Mary loss to ASU, the always enticing visit to South Bend to face the Irish, a huge showdown in Eugene against the explosive Ducks and, of course, the regular-season finale against UCLA, the crosstown rival who has beaten USC three years in a row.

If you are Sarkisian, everything you could want is right in front of you this year to begin putting your stamp on the program, much in the same way Carroll won over the faithful in his second season by advancing to the Orange Bowl and finishing the season playing as well as any team in the country.

And as Sarkisian enters his seventh season as a head coach, he's been around long enough to know that these opportunities don't come around very often, but they are here this season and we're about to find out if he is ready to take advantage.