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Saturday, Aug 16 2014 12:26 AM

USC look to put rough season behind them, compete for Pac-12 title

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BY GREG BEACHAM AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Cody Kessler's head has finally stopped spinning after a USC season featuring four head coaches, interminable drama and -- somehow -- 10 victories.

The Centennial grad is hoping for a return to normalcy for the Trojans this fall under new coach Steve Sarkisian. And even after four seasons of Lane Kiffin, title contention is still the norm at USC.

Related Info

2013 at a glance

RECORD: 10-4 (third in Pac-12 South)

FINAL RANKING: 19th in AP Poll

BOWL: Won Las Vegas Bowl over Fresno State, 45-20

COACHES: Lane Kiffin (3-2); Ed Orgeron (6-1); Clay Helton (1-0)

"We come to USC to win championships, no matter who the coach is," said Kessler, who started all 14 games last season. "It was a crazy season last year, but we always have players who can compete for a Pac-12 title and a national championship at USC, and I think we're in a position to do that again."

Sarkisian has returned to his native Los Angeles area to take his shot at restoring USC to the glory of the last decade. With NCAA sanctions nearly finished and a sparkling new training complex on campus, the former Washington coach believes it's time for USC to return to its spot atop the Pac-12.

"I don't know many schools that could have won 10 games twice during the middle of sanctions with the loss of scholarships -- and built two brand-new buildings," Sarkisian said. "I think it says a lot about the power of SC."

Sarkisian feels he returned at the perfect time for a program ready to rise again after the chaos of 2013, and he is already making a personal mark on the Trojans.

USC has installed an aggressive, up-tempo offense that will be new to Coliseum fans used to the Trojans' traditional pro-style sets. Kessler is excited to show off his athleticism on a revamped offense including returning tailbacks Tre Madden and Javorius Allen.

Sarkisian also has been polite and cordial to UCLA and coach Jim Mora, who have taken over Los Angeles supremacy with two straight wins over the Trojans and a highly ranked team heading into the fall.

The transition has been relatively smooth for Sarkisian, who knows he must win immediately to keep USC's zealous fans happy about athletic director Pat Haden's choice. Even with a brutal early schedule featuring six straight opponents coming off winning seasons, Sarkisian believes he has the team to make an immediate run at a league title.

"I feel very connected to this team," Sarkisian said. "I feel like our staff is very connected to these players, and that goes a long way."

Here are five things to watch in Sarkisian's debut season at USC:

LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL

A half-decade after Pete Carroll left the program, the Trojans' scholarship restrictions are nearly over. USC is in its final season of NCAA sanctions limiting its number of scholarships, but Sarkisian's depth is still limited this fall. While still stacked with their usual five-star talent, the Trojans are thin at several positions, and season-ending training camp injuries for Kenny Bigelow and Jabari Ruffin have already hurt the defense.

AIR APPARENT

The Trojans lost Marqise Lee to the Jacksonville Jaguars after his junior season, but Sarkisian likely has several capable replacements for the star receiver. Nelson Agholor is back to provide a deep threat, while Darreus Rogers is expected to be the other starter. Freshman Juju Smith and oft-injured junior George Farmer are candidates for the No. 3 spot, and promising freshman Adoree Jackson could get a longer look.

DOUBLE DUTY

Smith and Jackson could be prominent parts of the offense, but they also might contribute extensively in the defensive secondary. Sarkisian's staff must be resourceful with its depth challenges, and both Smith and Jackson are learning multiple roles along with freshman receiver Rahshead Johnson.

WILCOX IN CHARGE

Sarkisian brought defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox with him from Washington, and the veteran assistant takes over a wildly inconsistent unit that shut down the likes of Stanford, Notre Dame, Oregon State and Fresno State last season, but was shredded by Arizona State and UCLA. Leonard Williams is one of the nation's top defensive linemen, and four-year starter Hayes Pullard is back to lead at linebacker in Wilcox's hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme.

O-LINE WOES

The Trojans are thin on the offensive line, with three starting jobs wide open and a noticeable lack of depth. Left guard Aundrey Walker also has been slow to return after breaking his ankle last November. Kessler's mobility could be tested early and often, but the athletic quarterback is eager for the challenge.

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