The sanctions are gone, and the scholarships are coming back. USC finally has a chance to recapture the magic and success that Trojans fans enjoyed for the early part of the 2000's.
Now with 14 returning starters, their first full recruiting class in four years, and a healthy slate of talented players on the depth chart, this seems to be a difference Trojans team than years past. USC is picked to win the South in several preseason magazines/polls, and considered to be a College Football Playoff contender by many. For that success to come in 2015, it'll hinge on the offense continuing to produce and keep up with the Oregons and the Stanfords of the world.
Starting with the QBs, Kessler is through his first year as the full-time starter for USC, and was a large part of the Trojans success last season. He completely nearly 70% of his passes for 3,826 yards, throwing 39 touchdowns to just five interceptions.
He set USC season records for completions (315), completion percentage (69.7), passing efficiency (167.1) and interception rate (1.11) and tied USC season marks for TD passes (39) and 300-yard passing games (7). His 39 TDs tied for second on the Pac-12 list. Against Power 5 opponents, his passing efficiency (160.2) was third best in the nation, his completion percentage (68.8%) was second and his passing TDs (29) was second.
Conquest Chronicles on Kessler:
Kessler has gone through a roller coaster of a career here in Los Angeles. He played for four different coaches in a six-month period, played in games where the Trojans suited up less than 45 scholarship players, and excelled on the field with six true freshman starting on the offense. Adversity is nothing new to Kessler, and at a school like USC when expectations are high, that experience is an intangible asset that no other team in the Pac-12 has.
Worst (Y'know, doomsday scenario bad) case scenario, if Kessler were to go down, Max Browne is ready to come up and work damage control. The redshirt sophomore seems to be in line to succeed Kessler in 2016, and to be on the field when USC takes on Alabama in Dallas.
An explosive presence will be missed from the Trojan backfield with Buck Allen choosing to forgo his senior season at USC and enter the 2015 NFL Draft. Allen had the best single season for a USC RB since [Winner Redacted] heisman-winning campaign in 2005. He was an integral part of Coach Sarkisian's offense, running for 1,489 yards and 11 touchdowns while also hauling in 41 receptions for 458 yards.
Now with Allen gone, RB1 is open and for the taking. You have veterans Justin Davis and Tre Madden, who have shown glimpses of speed and quickness, but have been slowed by injuries of recent. Davis had a great sophomore season as Buck Allen's backup, tallying 595 yards on 129 carries (4.6 ypc) and 4 touchdowns in 2014. Madden has missed two full seasons (2012, 2014) with knee and foot injuries, but played very well when he hit the field. In 2013, Madden racked up over 600 yards on 63 carries before going down with a hamstring injury and eventually losing his spot to Buck Allen.
If the duo can avoid injuries early, then the USC running backs can contribute a big chunk of the Trojans offense in 2015.
Like with the Running Backs, the Trojans offense will have to replace a big time producer who has now gone off to the NFL.
Nelson Agholor had over 1,300 yards and 100 catches in 2014, and now will be catching passes for the Philadelphia Eagles this fall after being drafted in the first round.
Still, even with the loss of Agholor this unit seems to be fleshed-out for the upcoming season, which various options/weapons at Kessler's disposal. Take JuJu Smith for instance, the freshman All-American tallied over 700 receiving yards in 2014, along with five scores. I could see him aptly replacing the production Agholor brought to Sark's offense last year.
Smith will be the favorite target, but several names to look out for big games from are Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell, who moved up to the first string group this year. Of course, the explosive Adoree' Jackson will be a viable option when he's not returning punts or intercepting passes.
This unit has several new pieces, and will be replacing one big one, but it can still produce a large amount of offense with Kessler at the helm.
I think anytime you return your entire offensive line, with two freshman all-americans, you're going to be pretty set this year.
For the first time in the modern era of the USC Football, the Trojans had three true freshman starting in the same game in Toa Lebendahn, Viane Talamaivao, and Damien Mama. All three benefitted from working with top ten draft pick Leonard Williams in their first year on campus.
Along with the three young starters, Center Max Tuerk is the only Senior on the Trojans line, opting to return for his final year. A three year starter, Tuerk was the first ever true freshman to start at LT for USC. Since then, he has moved around the line before settling as the starting Center last season. He's a preseason first team All-america, and Pac-12 pick.
Coach Sarkisian on his offensive line:
"When you build a team, you have to start up front, and we've done that now by developing the players we had on the roster as well as bringing in some talented recruits," said Sarkisian. "We are fortunate that all of our starters are back this year, as well as some players returning from injuries and some really good newcomers. I love our line's overall athleticism, toughness and attitude, plus its versatility and depth. I think Max is the best center in the country and Toa is on his way to an all-star career."
For the offense to be successful this season, the USC O-Line has to play how they're expected to play. With five starters, three all-americans, and over 72 starts coming back for 2014, anything but a dominant performance would be unacceptable. Cody Kessler should, (and will), take advantage of having one of the best line's in the country with now a full year of starting under his belt. He can light up the stat sheet in his final year for a potential heisman run.
There are several new faces making an appearance with the offense, more specifically at Receiver and Running Back, but there are potential breakout stars within each group. JuJu Smith can fill the role Nelson Agholor had in last year's offense.
This can be one of the best offenses, not only in the Pac-12, but in the entire country next year. If the line stays healthy, Kessler keeps up his consistent performances, and he finds a capable running back to hand the ball off to, this Trojans team could be thinking playoff when all is said and done.