- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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USC's and Matt Barkley’s "Unfinished Business" epic, so celebrated before its release -- No. 1 in the nation! Trojans are back! -- turned into a notorious flop in 2012. It became to college football sort of what "Ishtar" or "Gigli" were to film, devolving into reports of grumbling dissent, locker room spats and an ignominious blowout loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, the beginning of former coach Lane Kiffin’s downfall.
As eyebrows again rise over the Trojans' chances to return to the national picture in 2015, it’s not completely unreasonable to nurse at least some skepticism about growing preseason promotion. We’ve been here before, when USC welcomed back an accomplished veteran quarterback and a strong supporting cast, one that on paper appeared perfectly capable of overcoming issues of youth and roster depth.
In 2012, it was Matt Barkley out front. Three years later, it’s Cody Kessler, whom Phil Steele last week named a first-team preseason All-American. Except Kessler, who calls Barkley "a big brother," watched things go rear end over tea kettle as a backup. He knows the perils of hype and how quickly a cocky locker room can transform into an embarrassed one.
"We kind of lost our identity from the year before when we came out and no one thought of us as a contender," Kessler said. "Being preseason No. 1 got to us. Some of the guys, instead of being a team, started to become individuals, doing their own thing. That’s not something I want this team to do, to get caught up in these rankings that come out, these individual awards for guys on this team. We still need to think we’re a team that’s an underdog, that’s on its way back up after sanctions the last three or four years."
USC is going to become USC again. It’s not a question of if; it’s only a matter of when. And the roster around Kessler, which includes 15 returning starters and oodles of budding NFL talent, makes it enticing to insist it will be this fall. The general expectation is USC will start the season ranked in the top 10. If it goes on to win the hyper-competitive Pac-12, a spot in the College Football Playoff seems likely.
Kessler and his teammates see the preseason predictions, hear the praise. USC has never been a program that hides from hype. Few national powers are more media friendly. But we all know being the lead story cuts both ways, and there are plenty of skeptics who expect the Trojans to again fall short of expectations, perhaps in some way because of players wallowing in their own hype before actually recording a few notable wins.
Kessler himself doesn’t hide from the chatter. He concedes he’s pleased with being included on preseason Heisman Trophy lists -- as in, he tells the truth when asked about the bronze trophy -- but he also knows talk won’t beat Notre Dame, UCLA or Oregon. Or Stanford, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State.
"All this hype -- I’m very honored to be recognized: the All-American, the Heisman, but it’s the preseason and at the end of the day, I try not to look at it," he said. "If I don’t perform on the field -- if our team doesn’t perform on the field -- none of that matters.
"[The Heisman is] something I definitely want to strive for. It’s definitely important to me. It’s a prestigious award. It would be really cool. But my biggest concern is team goals."
Like his team's, Kessler’s résumé is imperfect. The numbers say Kessler produced one of the best years a USC quarterback has ever had in 2014 -- 39 touchdowns, just five interceptions -- but he’s as aware as anyone that he and the offense feasted on the weak and struggled against their best foes. Kessler tossed four touchdowns and three picks against four teams that finished ranked, averaging nearly two yards less per attempt. Most notably, Kessler has not played well in two meetings against archrival UCLA, which probably has no interest in yielding its newfound status as the No. 1 football program in Los Angeles.
"That’s something I take personally because those games I didn’t perform well, those are the games we lost," Kessler said. "I’m very hard on myself. I’ve been watching those games this offseason. The one thing I want to do is be consistent in every game."
Kessler doesn’t hide from the criticism of skeptics who note his faltering in big games, and his coach, Steve Sarkisian, isn’t against noting it either.
"The big thing for Cody is, how does he play at his best at the biggest moments?" Sarkisian said. "That’s something that, if you really want to leave a legacy, that’s what you do. You’re at your best at the biggest moments."
In a 2014 season of tight Pac-12 matchups, USC went 4-3 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Though the Trojans prevailed in some of those games, a nail-biting win at South Division champion Arizona being most meaningful, they also failed in the fourth quarter in others. That didn’t escape notice in the coaching offices and became a point of emphasis in spring practices and even in offseason workouts.
"The biggest thing we’ve emphasized is finishing games," Kessler said. "Everyone saw it. We lost the Arizona State game on a Hail Mary. The Utah game we lost on the last play. If we finish those games, 9-4 turns into 11-2."
Though USC won't be at full strength in terms of scholarships for at least another year or two, NCAA sanctions are over. The gathered talent appears again worthy of a place in the national discussion. The past few seasons haven't been easy, on or off the field, but the folks who inhabit Heritage Hall surrounded by trophies celebrating individual and team accomplishments believe they are again ready for their close-up.
Said Kessler, "It’s been up and down. It’s been a long journey. It hasn’t all been perfect."
Perhaps the most important ingredient for the 2015 Trojans, one that will distinguish them from the 2012 crew, will be some hard knocks sustained along the way.