Having competed in the Pac-12 South for two seasons, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham knows what he’s up against. His Utes have lost once or twice to every team in the division, creating an impression of depth and balance.
Yet when asked recently if a genuine flagship program exists in the South, Whittingham hardly hesitated to endorse USC — the very same Trojans who lost five of their last six games in 2012.
“From a talent standpoint, SC is still the benchmark,” Whittingham said during the Pac-12’s spring teleconference. “I don’t think there’s any question. They’ve had the most talent in the league for a lot of years. … You still have to say the Trojans are the guys that everyone’s trying to catch.”
That description makes USC one of the most intriguing football teams in the country in 2013, worth talking about all summer. Interest in the Trojans is high in Utah, anyway, considering USC hosts Utah State in September and the Utes visit the Coliseum in October. Unless they improve, the Trojans could meet BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl in December.
They have bigger ambitions than San Francisco as a postseason destination, with an overhauled coaching staff and a precedent of recovering quickly from something like last season’s 7-6 downturn. In 2001, USC finished 6-6 with a loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Trojans came back with an 11-2 record, an Orange Bowl victory and a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Carson Palmer the following season.
USC coach Lane Kiffin made several staff changes — including, in essence, firing his father. Monte Kiffin returned to the NFL as the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. Clancy Pendergast, another longtime NFL coach who most recently was California’s defensive coordinator, moved to USC.
Lane Kiffin said the effect of the makeover was such that for anyone visiting the Trojans’ spring practices, “I don’t think there was a feeling of ‘last year’ at all.”
An immediate, dramatic upswing is asking a lot of USC, though. This decade’s Trojans are in the middle of NCAA sanctions, reducing their scholarship limits, and they’re starting over at quarterback. The only consolation? Turns out, the players they lost to the NFL were not so highly valued.
In advance of USC’s visit last October, many of us were labeling the Trojans the most loaded team ever to play at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Yet a team that opened the season with a No. 1 ranking and once stood 6-1 proceeded to lose to Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, while not having a player picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. The Trojans claimed only receiver Robert Woods (second), safety T.J. McDonald (third), quarterback Matt Barkley (fourth) and center Khaled Holmes (fourth) as draftees.
The Trojans should be treated better in the 2014 draft, with receiver Marquise Lee and defensive end Morgan Breslin as projected top-10 picks. USC also features offensive guard John Martinez, a senior from Cottonwood High.
The three-way quarterback competition includes Max Wittek, who filled in when Barkley injured his shoulder against UCLA. Wittek also lost to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
The Trojans are positioned for a good start this season. They’ll visit Hawaii before hosting Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. Then comes a late-September game at Arizona State, which brings me to a gauge of Utah’s program.
In Whittingham’s first three years as a head coach in the Mountain West, he beat — and was beaten by — every other school at least once. Repeating that pattern in the Pac-12 South would require defeating USC and ASU this season.