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Steve Sarkisian still not feeling the love at USC

USC has been picked to win the Pac-12 Conference football championship and appears ready to make a post-sanctions national title run.

The Trojans return quarterback Cody Kessler, who threw for 39 touchdowns last season, and 17 other starters.

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They are solid as cement at center, have a juke-moves receiver in JuJu Smith, a two-way star in Adoree' Jackson and a cruise-missile linebacker in Su'a Cravens.

The only position at which USC is scary thin, some say, is head coach. Steve Sarkisian won nine games his first season but fell the Cumberland Gap short of winning everyone over.

"At the end of every season you self-scout your program," Sarkisian said Friday at Pac-12 media day. "You look at every aspect of your program. I personally start with me first."

Let's go over that self-evaluation form. USC blew a 17-6 lead at Boston College and lost two games — Arizona State and Utah — on the last play.

"I wish I had us better prepared to finish those three games," he said. "We just didn't get it done for a variety of reasons and that totally falls on me."

The Trojans Fan Base totally concurs.

Great things seem to be expected this season in spite of Sarkisian, who was recently rated No. 9 in an AthlonSports ranking of Pac-12 coaches. (He led only Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, Washington State's Mike Leach and California's Sonny Dykes, who combined last season to go 10-26.)

Sarkisian was even rated below Oregon State Coach Gary Andersen, who has yet to coach his first Pac-12 game.

"I don't know where that ranking comes from," USC linebacker Cravens said. "In my eyes, he's the best coach. He's the best coach for USC, so we're going to rock with him."

Despite consecutive nine-win seasons — his last at Washington and his first at USC — Sarkisian can't shake his nickname: "Seven-win Sark."

It is an alliteration that rolls easily off the tongue, and people don't want to give it up — even if it's not true.

The people who don't like Sarkisian, and maybe never will, prefer to remember his three straight 7-6 seasons at Washington.

And those nine wins at USC last season are considered as underachieving as seven at Washington.

"The circumstances he was under, it's not a bad year," quarterback Kessler said in defense of his coach. "Obviously, the expectations at USC, that's a below average season. And we know that. We're not there yet. We've got to get better."

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Kessler, who loves Sarkisian and almost committed to play for him at Washington, doesn't understand the criticism.

"He's a great coach, he really is," Kessler said. "It's tough, because guys don't even know him, they can throw out opinions however they want. He knows the game of football, he's played the position, he loves the game of football, he's learned from Pete Carroll. I really think he's one of the best coaches I've played for."

The enmity directed toward Sarkisian is unwarranted but very real. He has already been written off in some quarters — usually late in the fourth — as an over-his-head, warmed-over version of former USC coach Lane Kiffin.

Sarkisian did inherit a tough situation at USC and he did make mistakes. The defeats to Boston College and Arizona State were unacceptable.

USC closed with wins against Notre Dame and Nebraska, though, and then went out and scored another top-five recruiting class.

Still there remains the sense that USC and Athletic Director Pat Haden should have done better in hiring a football coach.

Had they been available, Urban Meyer or Nick Saban might have been offered $10 million a year. But they weren't.

Some USC fans clamored for Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin, who went 8-5 last year. Others wanted Boise State Coach Chris Petersen, who went 8-6 at Washington. Those who fell in love with Ed Orgeron, USC's interim coach for part of 2013, can now find him doing what he does best: coaching defensive line at Louisiana State.

USC could regret not hiring Jack Del Rio, a former Trojans star and longtime NFL coach. He will become a "told-you-so" should he do the impossible and find success with the Oakland Raiders.

Sarkisian knows he wasn't perfect last year.

He has confessed to the sin of losing to Arizona State on a Hail Mary. "I should have saved a timeout for the end," Sarkisian said.

To win a Pac-12 title, which probably would lead to a spot in college football's four-team playoff, USC needs to get much closer to perfect. It will have to overcome bad bounces and unforeseeable late-game situations.

The Trojans may, in the minds of some people, have to overcome their coach.

"I didn't come here to be OK or come here to be mediocre," Sarkisian said. "We came here to win championships."

Everything will be fine so long as that happens.

The sooner the better, of course.

No, scratch that. Better make it this year.

Follow Chris Dufresne on Twitter @DufresneLATimes

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