The Times’ Super 16 college football countdown: No. 11 USC

Cody Kessler
USC quarterback Cody Kessler looks downfield for an open receiver during the Trojans’ spring game on April 19.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Acknowledging that college football’s new four-team playoff could someday inch toward a larger basketball-style tournament, we continue our Super 16 countdown, with No. 11 USC:

What Steve Sarkisian is trying to do in his first year at USC should not be confused with decoding the human genome.

No one is saying Sark’s brain should one day be preserved, in a pickle jar, for further pathological study.

What Sarkisian is trying to do, though, is very interesting and promises to be more fun than another season of Lane Kiffin “bubble screens.”


Sarkisian has watched, along with the rest of us, the evolution of spread-option in college football.

These gizmo offenses have historically been a way for schools with lesser talent to level the playing field by stretching it horizontally and creating mismatches in space.

It has allowed schools such as West Virginia (with spread-option godfather Rich Rodriguez) to compete for titles with fewer head-on collisions with future NFL linebackers.

Chip Kelly, at Oregon, upped the ante by upping his spread to a pace so frenzied some coaches want it outlawed.


Sarkisian’s experiment is this: what if you cranked up the hamster wheel with a traditional, pro-style offense?

This is different from the modern makeovers of traditional power programs such as Auburn, Michigan, Florida and Ohio State.

Those schools changed their philosophies. It worked at Auburn, Florida and Ohio State. It was a huge flop at Michigan, where Rodriguez was run out of town for daring to alter the program DNA.

Sarkisian made the rounds this spring trying to convince Trojans fans he was not messing with Trojans tradition.

He was not eliminating the fullback, or tight end, and going to five receiver sets.

“We are not running a no-huddle!” he said at the Ronnie Lott Trophy luncheon in May.

Sarkisian is simply messing with pace. He’s going to apply Oregon’s tempo using USC players. He thinks going faster with the blue-chip athletes USC can recruit will give his team a distinct advantage.

“The schemes are going to look similar,” Sarkisian said at Pac-12 media days. “But we are going to go fast.”


USC is still going to run Student Body Right; it’s just going to be more like Student Body Right NOW!

It’s an interesting premise … but will it work?

We’re hedging Sarkisian might be on to something.

The biggest strain may be in the Trojans’ top-ranked Pac-12 defense.

Scoring fast (as Oregon does) puts your defense back on the field when it should be resting. Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti had to adjust by rotating waves of players to keep everyone fresh.

Will that work at scholarship-depleted USC?

Fans worried their Trojans will become pass-happy need to look at Washington last year. Sarkisian went fast with Washington’s traditional sets and finished third in the league in rushing behind Oregon and Arizona.

Last year, Washington tailback Bishop Sankey carried 327 times for 1,869 yards and 20 touchdowns.


Those ramrod numbers are comparable to a power back USC fans might remember from the mid-1970s: Ricky Bell.

Washington also featured a future NFL tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Imagine what Sarkisian might do with a beat-the-clock approach and three game-changer tailbacks in Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis?

Imagine playing fast like Oregon but with Leonard Williams anchoring the defense?

USC fans should embrace change and imagine the possibilities in the school’s first season off NCAA probation. The Trojans went 10-4 last season in a state of chaos. The schedule is formidable but not overwhelming. USC opens against a Fresno State team it dismantled in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl. That’s followed by a tough game at defending Pac-12 champion Stanford, in the process of retooling after significant personnel losses.

USC misses Oregon and closes with the one-two punch of UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 22 followed at home against Notre Dame.

USC is going fast this year. Will it fly or will it flop?

The season can’t get here fast enough.

The countdown so far: No. 16 Notre Dame, No. 15 Mississippi, No. 14 Stanford, No. 13 Louisiana State, No. 12 Michigan State.