College football fans know David Shaw's Stanford Cardinal. Regardless of who's behind center or anchoring their defense, the Cardinal's identity was established with Harbaugh and cemented by Shaw. Hard-nosed, smash mouth, dominate the line of scrimmage football.
No surprises, no trick plays, nothing fancy. As they call it, intellectual brutality. A physical style of football that has led to four straight BCS bowl appearances. The question is not who the Cardinal's are, but the cast of characters that comprise their identity. No Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Cameron Fleming, David Yankey, Ed Reynolds, Tyler Gaffney or Ben Reynolds.
Is 2014 a year to rebuild or reload?
Conversely, Southern Cal's identity is drenched in the vast tradition of what has been. They have pumped players into the NFL without missing a beat. But the Reggie Bush-centered downfall of Troy and the failure of Lane Kiffin rooted the Trojan's in mediocrity as of late.
Southern Cal fans have had to watch as Los Angeles has been overtaken by cross-town rivals, UCLA. The Bruins have been fighting for Pac-12 championships since Jim Mora Jr.'s arrival, while the Trojans were held to seven points in the Coliseum versus a 6-7 Washington St. team. But 2014 ushers in a new era in Los Angeles.
After week one of the 2014 college football season, the media hype train that has been stationed in Pasadena throughout the offseason has set its navigation towards Figueroa St.
But a dominating win over Fresno St. in the season home opener is what the Trojans are supposed to do. Week two will provide an opportunity for the new look Trojans as they face off in a heavy-weight bout on The Farm.
An opportunity for the Trojans to establish their identity.
Over the off-season questions were abundant on what Sarikisian's return to Southern Cal would look like. Will he fall into the same trap as Kiffin, trying to be Pete Carroll? Will they continue to run the traditional pro-style offense USC is accustomed to, or will Sark and company implement elements of their scheme from Washington? And most importantly, can Sark win the big games? Something he only had moderate success at in Washington.
We got a glimpse of Sark's answers to these questions in week one.
But the Trojans were not strained and faced little adversity that would allow the revelation of their true character. The Josh Shaw media circus that accompanied them leading up to the game does not count.
Will Sark's team be a team-of-the-future? They have loads of potential, but maybe they are just too young to win a big one on the road. Or will they step up in their first road test? Quite the task.
Against the Fresno St. Bulldogs, the Trojans played eleven true freshman. JuJu Smith had four receptions for 123 yards and Adoree Jackson found his way into the end zone early for his first career touch down. Both five-star recruits, according to Rivals.com, it is not surprising they found success early against an over-matched Fresno St. team.
Additionally, the Trojans consistently shuffled offensive linemen in and out. This included freshmen Damien Mama, Toa Lobendahn, and Viane Talamaivao. Athletically superior than Fresno St.'s defensive line, the young bulls flourished at home. But Stanford's front seven boasts six seniors who will not be intimidated by star rankings and high school accolades. How will they respond?
Behind the offensive line, QB Cody Kessler received high praise after his 424 yard, 4 TD performance in week one--but that is a stark contrast from the criticism he received for his mediocre play throughout 2013. The Southern Cal offensive line did an excellent job protecting their signal caller, but even when Kessler was forced out of the pocket, he made plays-and most importantly, protected the football.
Like Sark and the rest of the Trojans, Kessler has an opportunity to establish himself within a hierarchy of celebrated Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014. Does he elevate himself into the conversation with the likes of Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion, Taylor Kelly, etc.?
How will he respond when the senior-laden front seven of Stanford put him into the dirt early?
Kessler and the newly established offensive scheme will be worth watching as well. The Trojan offense has traditionally stuck with a pro-style offense, despite the evolution of the spread offense within college football. With superior athletes, past Trojan teams did not rely on read-options to put up points. But that offensive evolution has made its way to Troy.
Sark and co. have implemented the same style offense that was utilized while his staff was at the helm of the University of Washington program. Not wholly pro-style, not wholly hurry up. Instead, a fusion of the two that incorporates elements of the hurry up offense into a traditional pro-style scheme.
In the Pac-12, Stanford is the achilles heel of the spread, read-option offenses. Oregon's national championship dreams have been floundered the last two years and ASU's high-powered offense in 2014 stalled in the Pac-12 championship against the Cardinal.
So when push comes to shove--literally--what will we see from Southern Cal? Will they go toe-to-toe with Stanford's pro-style offense, or continue to incorporate the read-option schemes that have been unsuccessful against the boys from Palo Alto?
Sark has yet to beat the Cardinal running this type of offense, while USC upset the Cardinal in the Coliseum last year under interim head coach Ed Orgeron.
We are going to learn a lot about the Trojans in week two. Their performance in week one was impressive, but unchallenged. That will not be the case in week two.
For the Trojans to leave Palo Alto victorious, their true freshman will have to perform like upperclassmen, Kessler will have to execute at a high level, and they cannot flinch as they trade punches with the Stanford defense. But even if they do not win, they can establish their identity. Losing to Stanford on The Farm is respectable, but how they do so will be telling.
So here's Sark's chance to begin shedding the "7 & 5 Sark" nickname and for USC to establish who they are and their level within the hierarchy of Pac-12's elite.