Thursday September 4th, 2014

On Aug. 10, Noah Greenwald, the director of the endangered species program at the Center for Biological Diversity, penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times imploring for the return of the grizzly bear to its natural habitat. The predators were wiped out of California almost 30 years ago and last observed within state lines in 1924. Greenwald cited the importance of apex predators in a functional ecosystem, the dangers of living without them and, well, the sheer beauty of those bears. The grizzlies won’t bring danger, Greenwald argued. Rather, they’ll bring balance.

The Pac-12 is the nation's deepest conference this season, boasting a gaggle of great quarterbacks and a nine-game conference schedule. But its natural predator has gone missing. The paragon of West Coast college football and Los Angeles’ de facto pro team, USC, isn’t anybody’s league favorite this fall. It’s not projected to finish ahead of Oregon (though the two teams don’t play in 2014), upset Stanford or even beat its crosstown rival, UCLA. In a year in which the Pac-12 should thrive, the conference’s equilibrium feels off.

Or is this simply the new order?

New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian will face his first real test when he leads his young team into Saturday’s clash with Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champion. Marred by two embarrassing mini-scandals -- cornerback Josh Shaw’s fabricated tale of saving his nephew from drowning and tailback Anthony Brown’s accusation that Sarkisian is a racist -- USC will play an unfamiliar role: underdog. Even as it suffered from NCAA sanctions and slogged through the Lane Kiffin years, the Trojans weren’t supposed to sit in the second tier of their own league.

Their solution? Speed up the offense, bend but don’t break on defense and forget about the rest. If the plan works, USC could expedite its return to the Pac-12’s perch. But this weekend is just the first step in its long claw back to the top. In fact, it may be the foremost challenge the team faces all season.

To win, the Trojans will need to conquer an old demon.

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First, a tangential (but important) history lesson: Stanford was a Pac-12 doormat until 2007, when the 40-plus-point underdog, led by first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, stunned Pete Carroll and the No. 2 Trojans 24-23 in one of college football’s landmark upsets (a result that snapped USC’s 35-game home winning streak).

The rivalry didn’t cool from there.

In 2009 Harbaugh famously called for a two-point conversion in a game the Cardinal led 48-21, prompting a tense handshake after Stanford’s 55-21 win in the Coliseum. In ‘10 Stanford emerged 37-35 on a field goal as time expired, and in ‘11 Stanford won at the Coliseum again, this time 56-48 in three overtimes. In ‘12 the Cardinal beat No. 2 USC 21-14, part of the Trojans’ campaign that started with national title aspirations and ended with a humiliating 21-7 defeat to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Stanford, meanwhile, defeated Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl, the third of its four straight BCS appearances.

There was a reversal of fortunes in 2013. Boisterous interim head coach Ed Orgeron reignited the Trojans and a senior class who had never defeated the Cardinal in a 20-17 upset. And then there was the incident in which Sarkisian (then Washington’s coach) and Stanford coach David Shaw exchanged public barbs over Sark’s accusations that the Cardinal defense faked injuries to slow down the Huskies. (Shaw delivered a caustic burn in response to the allegations.)

The lesson? Even if Shaw and Sarkisian publicly tamped down last year’s animosity, the USC-Stanford rivalry is far from lukewarm.

Thus, the question, an unusual one for Week 2: Can USC take its first step back toward supremacy so early under a new regime? The answer is layered.

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Harry How/Getty Images

The Trojans ran an astonishing 105 plays from scrimmage for 701 total yards in their 52-13 thrashing of Fresno State last Saturday. While USC’s performances have dramatically fluctuated since Carroll’s departure in 2010, the talent on its roster has not. Sarkisian’s objective is simple: Tempo will breed results. When the rhythm is right, nobody can keep pace with USC’s athletes.

Quarterback Cody Kessler is an underrated general to execute Sarkisian’s attack, and, boy, does he have weapons. The Trojans deployed a variety of vaunted recruits against the Bulldogs, whether it was JuJu Smith blazing down the sidelines (he finished with four catches for 123 yards), two-way wonder Adoree’ Jackson diving over the middle for his first college touchdown or brawny tight end Bryce Dixon sneaking behind the linebackers for a 22-yard scoring grab in the third quarter. The young talent shined in front of a fan base starved for excitement.

But the freshmen shouldn’t overshadow USC’s most lethal threat: Nelson Agholor.

Agholor is a shifty, savvy receiver who has the ability to needle through cramped openings. When he hits the open field, he practically vanishes. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder returned three punts for touchdowns in 2013 and was the star in last year’s upset of Stanford, making eight catches for 104 yards. And that’s not to mention George Farmer -- the receiver projected to be better than former high school teammates and Trojans standouts Marqise Lee and Robert Woods -- and how he’ll factor into the offense. Just add him to USC's list of playmakers.

However, inexperience may plague the Trojans at other critical positions. They started two freshmen guards, Toa Lobendahn and 370-pounder Damien Mama, in Week 1. The trench positions aren’t often awarded to teenagers, but following the departure of two staunch linemen (Marcus Martin and Kevin Graf), USC couldn’t afford to let its boys develop. Even the primary backup, Viane Talamaivao, received his high school diploma a mere three months ago.

In the second week of its new system, USC’s line will face a defining test. Stanford is the only team to halt Oregon’s offense (and similar no-huddle attacks) for two straight years, primarily because of its ability to smother the ground game. The Trojans beat Stanford last season, but they only managed 23 rushing yards. Sarkisian preached the importance of tempo throughout training camp, but the Cardinal’s specialty -- even as they replace three defensive leaders -- is ruining it.

Stanford's 2012 upset of the Trojans caused USC reserve center Cyrus Hobbi so much anxiety that the theater major wrote and performed a play about it. Now, Lobendahn, Talamaivao and Mama (a game-time decision, as he is coping with a knee injury) enter Hobbi’s former predicament: combating one of the nation’s most fearsome defenses as inexperienced linemen. Even though Stanford lost several key contributors, six members of its starting front seven are seniors.

The game will likely hinge on USC’s ability to establish its offense, though the matchup between two coveted NFL prospects -- Trojans defensive lineman Leonard Williams and Cardinal offensive tackle Andrus Peat -- makes for a compelling undercard. USC enters the cauldron earlier than its conference foes. Sarkisian's first test has arrived.

*****

There is one more factor worth mentioning here: The Pac-12 suffers when USC isn't part of its upper echelon. Fans of other programs enjoy watching the Trojans lose, but it’s difficult to find joy when a former powerhouse toils in mediocrity. Having a USC team capable of winning 10 games will enhance the entire league’s resumé; that could become especially key in the College Football Playoff era.

Now it’s on Sarkisian, a coach with a career record of 35-29 and a penchant for midseason swoons, to show that the Trojans are ready for a resurgence. Sarkisian was the program’s wily young coordinator under Carroll who helped Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush-led offenses clobber their opponents. Behind Kessler, Agholor and a roster packed with talent, he hopes to replicate that success in 2014.

UCLA, not USC, is the Los Angeles team expected to contend for a national title this season. All the while, the grizzly hibernates. If the Trojans wish to emerge as the Pac-12’s predator, Saturday could prove to be the start.

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