While USC's season is kicking off with a new coach and the beginning of the end of its NCAA scholarship restrictions, plenty of starters are back. They'll certainly remember their first opponent.
The Steve Sarkisian era begins Saturday night at the Coliseum against Fresno State, the team the Trojans ended their drama-filled, 10-win 2013 season against in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Sarkisian, who returns to Los Angeles after five years as head coach at Washington following seven as a USC assistant, has 18 starters back from the 10-4 USC team he didn't cross paths with on last season's Pac-12 slate.
"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."
The 15th-ranked Trojans are hoping for stability after a season that saw the in-season firing of Lane Kiffin followed by the resignation of interim coach Ed Orgeron before the team's 45-20 victory over No. 21 Fresno State on Dec. 21.
Throughout the changes, returning quarterback Cody Kessler was the starter for all 14 games and remained singularly focused on titles. That hasn't changed as USC enters its final season of NCAA sanctions limiting scholarships.
"We come to USC to win championships, no matter who the coach is," said Kessler, who had 20 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and 2,968 yards passing in more of a pro-style offense than he's likely to run this 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."
While Kessler will be running more of an up-tempo offense under Sarkisian, the school's offensive coordinator in his final two seasons as an assistant, he'll have plenty of familiar weapons to work with, including tailbacks Tre Madden and Javorius Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor. Fellow wideout Marqise Lee might be the most noteworthy absence after jumping to the NFL, but the real concerns could be with an uncertain offensive line and defensive depth due to scholarship restrictions.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who came with Sarkisian from Washington, already has obstacles mounting after a season in which USC's inconsistency was exposed, most notably in a 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28.
While defensive end Leonard Williams, safety Su'a Cravens and linebacker Hayes Pullard all return, key injuries have already crept up.
Josh Shaw, a team captain whose 67 tackles led the secondary a season ago, is out with two high ankle sprains. The senior initially claimed to have jumped from a second-floor balcony to help a seven-year-old nephew who had fallen into a pool, but the story was questioned by the school and Shaw was suspended Wednesday after admitting it was a lie.
Shaw has been banned indefinitely from all of the Trojans' team activities, the school announced in a statement. The true reasons behind his injury remain unknown, though Sarkisian said Thursday that the suspended Shaw could ''potentially'' return to the team at some point this season.
Season-ending training camp injuries for defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow and linebacker Jabari Ruffin have also hurt the defense.
Whoever fills the holes in Wilcox's hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme won't have to contend with former Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr, who led the team to a Mountain West title and an 11-2 record last season.
Fresno State won at least a share of the Mountain West in each of coach Tim DeRuyter's first two seasons, but things could be trickier this season without an established quarterback. Carr sparked an offense that has came to be known for a dangerous passing attack and paced a 43.4-point output in 2013, the sixth highest FBS average.
DeRuyter still hasn't named a starting signal caller and will make a game-time decision between Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette, though he's seen benefits from the ongoing competition.
"The thing that has been impressive is that Brian and Brandon have both really been competed their tails off," DeRuyter told the school's official website. "And that's why as a coach you love competition, you don't know how far a guy can go unless he's looking over his shoulder all the time and both those guys are handling it well. I feel comfortable with either of them being in the huddle right now leading our team, but as we go hopefully one will separate himself from the other."
The Bulldogs didn't face a ranked foe last season and have lost their last 17 such matchups, beginning with a 50-42 loss at No. 1 USC on Nov. 19, 2005.
The Trojans hold a 2-1 edge in the all-time series.