Steve Sarkisian knows exactly what he's in for as USC's new head coach: expectations. He addressed those expectations in his introductory press conference, per USCTrojans.com, saying his staff "won't shy away from [them]...we will embrace them."
Such an approach is necessary, because the expectation at USC is clear—success is measured exclusively through championships. And while conference championships are great, they were the means to a larger end for the glory years USC seeks to replicate under Sarkisian.
National championships are ultimately the goal, though no one outside of the USC locker room should set such an expectation for 2014. The Trojans will still be too depleted from NCAA sanctions to stack up with the top tier of national contenders, though strides were made in the offseason.
That's because Sarkisian already met expectations in his first major test, landing the Pac-12's highest-rated recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. A home run in the final week of the year's recruiting cycle addressed concerns on the roster, some of which are more immediately pressing than others.
A Pac-12 championship is a more reasonable first-year benchmark. That of course means a Pac-12 South title, and USC was oh-so-close to winning that in 2013.
At Washington, Sarkisian inherited a program fresh off a winless campaign and went 5-7 the next season. USC is not in need of nearly as drastic of a makeover—the Trojans won 10 games and finished ranked No. 19 in the final Associated Press Top 25, after all—but that makes his Year 1 job at USC somewhat more difficult than what he faced at Washington.
Washington's struggles in the six years leading up to Sarkisian's hire meant plenty of room for upward mobility. USC is in much better shape, but the room for immediate growth is scant.
There are uncharacteristic hiccups USC suffered in the last half decade, including last season, that Sarkisian and his staff can be reasonably expected to remedy in Year 1.
For example, the offensively anemic mess that was USC's conference-opening loss to Washington State is the kind of pockmark USC can expect not to have on its 2014 schedule.
The Trojans can beat the less-talented opponents on the slate and finish with a solid record, but exceeding the benchmark set last year means beating the top teams on the docket. It's only through these teams that Sarkisian can gain tangible ground compared to the previous season.
A thin USC roster is capable of beating a top-tier opponent. The Trojans' win over Stanford last November snapped a four-game losing streak to the Cardinal.
However, it was also USC's only victory over a ranked opponent in the regular season. The other three Top 25 teams it faced before the Las Vegas Bowl accounted for three of USC's four losses.
Two were also the Trojans' chief rivals, Notre Dame and UCLA.
The Fighting Irish and Bruins account for just 17 percent of the Trojans' schedule, but their value in determining Sarkisian's freshman-year grade is considerably higher.
Both programs improved measurably from those years USC dominated the rivalries, and their respective ascents coincide with USC being hamstrung by sanctions. Last year, the two gave the Trojans their only losses after Lane Kiffin's ouster—and not-so-coincidentally, USC was held to its two lowest point totals in the season's nine-game stretch post-Kiffin.
Both will appear in preseason polls, and both could be top-10 teams. Beating one is a realistic expectation. Knocking off both is a much taller order, and doing so would presumably have the Trojans in the College Football Playoff discussion at regular season's end.
Losing to both is more realistic, though a tough pill for USC to swallow. One of those rivalry losing streaks extending to three games is bad enough. Both hitting the three-game mark simultaneously hasn't happened since 1991 through 1993.
If winning the rivalry games is an either-or proposition, UCLA is the more beneficial win for Sarkisian's Year 1 resume. As preseason favorites, the Bruins are expected to be gatekeepers to the divisional crown and Pac-12 Championship Game: two realistically attainable goals.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer.
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