- Greg Katz, Columnist, WeAreSC.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Much ado was made regarding the USC quarterback competition between incumbent junior starter Cody Kessler and redshirt freshman Max Browne, a highly talented and likeable thrower by way of Sammamish, Wash.
As much as the wide-open quarterback competition theory was advanced prior to and during spring ball, it’s been quite obvious that Kessler has taken first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new offensive system and elevated his game. While Browne has shown improvement in his game, he hasn’t been quite able to keep pace with his older and more experienced teammate.
Kessler’s superior spring performance, however, may actually be a blessing in disguise for Sarkisian, who heavily recruited both Kessler and Browne when he was the head coach at Washington.
Besides the actual on-the-field competition between Kessler and Browne, there are four other underlying factors that may also be taken into consideration when Sarkisian names his quarterback, which appears likely by the end of spring ball on April 19.
Factor 1: The Trojans open the 2014 season on Aug. 30 by hosting Fresno State, a team the Men of Troy hammered 45-20 back in December at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. The quarterback of that lopsided demolition was Kessler, who threw for 345 yards and a Las Vegas Bowl-record and career-high four touchdown passes.
Obviously Sarkisian, who was in Las Vegas to watch the game, saw firsthand as Kessler dissected the Fresno State defense, and No. 6 also knows about the Bulldogs' returning personnel. Given the fact that Sarkisian can’t afford his new team to stub its toes against a squad it beat handily, it would be reasonable to think that with Kessler at the helm, chances would increase substantially for a season-opening victory in the Coliseum.
If the Trojans went into the Fresno State opener with an inexperienced Browne, they would still probably stand a good chance of winning. However, with a rookie quarterback starting his first collegiate game and the Bulldogs aware of it, the possibility of a Fresno State upset would notably increase. A Bulldogs upset would set up a worst-case scenario heading into the following week’s Pac-12 opener at Stanford and, no doubt, a quarterback controversy.
Factor 2: Considering the Trojans shocked highly ranked Stanford last season in the Coliseum, 20-17, you don’t have to be ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit or Lee Corso to know that Stanford head coach David Shaw and his team will be looking to hand it to the Trojans in revengeful fashion. And for good measure, they have the returning players to do it.
If the Trojans are to pull off another upset of the host Cardinal -- who return a successful, experienced senior quarterback in Kevin Hogan -- Sarkisian knows he needs an experienced quarterback, and he already has one in Kessler, who passed for 288 yards and one touchdown last season against Stanford.
Again, as talented as Browne is, would it be fair to start an inexperienced freshman quarterback against a team with a tough defense? You can bet Shaw would throw the defensive kitchen sink at a rookie quarterback, something that would be less effective against the experienced Kessler.
Factor 3: Since his hiring and by his own admission, Sarkisian has made no bones about the 2014 Trojans not rebuilding but already being championship caliber. In fact, he recently said that when healthy, his team is more talented than people think. That comment by itself puts increased expectations on the Trojans' new coach.
After the Stanford game, the Trojans travel across the country the following week for a battle at Boston College. Regardless of the Stanford outcome, an experienced quarterback and leader like Kessler would go a long way toward preventing a letdown.
Most would agree that the early schedule could bring immediate praise and early validation for Sarkisian’s new program or unwanted scrutiny. A potential 3-0 start to the season would go far in establishing more answers than regurgitated questions regarding his hire by USC athletic director Pat Haden. Kessler at quarterback would likely position the Trojans for a positive early-season scenario.
Factor 4: Fair or unfair, if things go south early in USC's 2014 schedule, Sarkisian knows that Trojans Nation will point out quickly how the 2013 team beat Stanford and Fresno State with former interim head coaches Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, respectively, and even Boston College under Lane Kiffin.
In a perfect world, Sarkisian should be objectively judged not on the first three games of 2014 but the season in its entirety. However, it’s inevitable that during the early part of the season, comparisons between Sarkisian and Orgeron will be well documented.
All of which brings us back to the competition between Kessler and Browne and potential scenarios with either quarterback starting the season. Of course, given the way Kessler has performed with just six spring practices remaining, all the conjecture, hypotheticals and analysis could be a moot point.