UNIVERSAL CITY -- USC coach Lane Kiffin hasn't shied away from weather metaphors in his 2 1/2-year tenure as the Trojans' head man.
"Dark clouds" started to hover around the program when the NCAA sanctions on the school were announced in June 2010, he repeatedly said. Then the "clouds started to move a bit" when the Trojans beat Notre Dame in South Bend last October. And when USC upset Oregon in Eugene a month later, he said "a little bit of sun" had finally hit the program.
Now, on the eve of the much-anticipated 2012 season at Pac-12 media day Tuesday, Kiffin kept the theme going -- with a slight adjustment.
"We kind of feel like we're in a perfect storm with so many good things going," he said during his introductory speech at the Gibson Amphitheatre. "We feel good about our current team and about our future teams for years to come."
Argue with his word choice all you want. But it's hard to argue with his message.
Twenty-five months after sanctions that were supposed to knock USC back into obscurity for five or six years, the Trojans are knocking on the door as one of the top two or three teams in the country heading into 2012. Recruiting is arguably at an all-time high. And many of the current team's top players will be in Troy for another season or two, too.
This team already looks built to last -- even with 10 fewer guys on scholarship than many other teams, and even with a fall incoming class of only 12 players.
That said, there are significant issues still facing the Trojans under Kiffin and Co. Running back depth is, obviously, a big question mark, even with top recruit Nelson Agholor slotted to play there this fall. The players they expect to man the two defensive tackle spots have just two collective collegiate starts under their belts. Two of their three most talented receivers have been bothered by injuries for much of the last year.
"I think it's exciting for our university and for our fans to be in these discussions," Kiffin said of the preseason rankings. "We're two years removed from what was handed down as people saying 'SC is over,' and being a preseason No. 1 team two years later is extremely exciting for our university and for our fans."
But he continued: "We have a lot of issues. We have an exciting schedule. We will have fewer players than everybody else that we play, and we will have to manage that."
The schedule shouldn't be too much of an issue, at least compared to past seasons. The Trojans' 2011 slate appears to have been much more difficult than the one they're facing this season. The toughest road game USC will play this fall is probably a mid-September tilt against a Stanford team that doesn't have a quarterback yet.
The other potentially difficult away contests are against Washington and Utah, two teams who finished a combined 10-10 in Pac-12 play last season.
One thing that could be an issue: expectations. Kiffin flatly denied he feels any more pressure this year than he has since his arrival in Los Angeles, but he did allow that some of his players may be feeling it as the season approaches.
One of the few unexpected benefits to the sanctions was that they provided young players an opportunity to play big-time college football without the normal inherent fears of missing out on a top bowl game. The Trojans afforded their first- and second-year guys tons of trial-and-error chances in the last two seasons, and they benefited from that.
Now, that's no longer the case. But Kiffin says it's no problem.
"We came back here to be in these spots," he said Tuesday. "This is exactly what we expected. The sanctions and the probations and the scholarships have made it more challenging, but they've probably also made it more fulfilling, to play with less players than people and still be in the position that we are in today."
Kiffin seemed finished with his train of thought. Then, when he wasn't asked another question for a few seconds, he added:
"Now we have a long ways to go, still."
14 games, to be exact.