BURBANK, Calif. — Even before coach Pete Carroll's dynasty had died, Southern California began a yearly cycle of sky-high preseason hopes and comparatively disappointing results.
After Carroll left and the Trojans became hamstrung by NCAA sanctions for the past half-decade, their modest winter successes never matched their enormous summer expectations.
Those hopes are high again, now that USC is free of scholarship sanctions and bolstered by its first full recruiting class in four years.
Coach Steve Sarkisian believes the Trojans can only break the cycle through hard work, and he can't wait to get to it next week.
"It's somewhat of a beauty contest right now," the second-year coach said Friday at the Pac-12 media days. "It's great, it's flattering that people feel a certain way about us, but ultimately we have to perform."
With quarterback Cody Kessler leading 16 returning starters, USC was picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll Thursday. The Trojans also are No. 10 in the preseason coaches' poll.
Never mind that the Trojans haven't won the league since 2008, or that rival Oregon reached the national championship game last season, or that the Pac-12 South might be the toughest division in the nation. USC's recruiting prowess and its recent history as a national powerhouse are irresistible to poll voters — and to fans who grew accustomed to winning trophies during Carroll's tenure.
"I'm not going to lie, it does feel good to be finally sanction-free," Kessler said. "Free from all these restrictions, because it has been a long time. I don't know if it's necessarily extra motivation, but I think it's an extra push. We're over that. We got through that together. Now it's done."
The pressure is enormous on the shoulders of Sarkisian and Kessler, but they welcome it as the price for being in Hollywood. USC went 9-4 in Sarkisian's debut last season with a small roster, but the coach landed the nation's top recruiting class in February with a full complement of scholarships.
From Kessler to the third-string defense, Sarkisian is cautiously confident he has the pieces in place to live up to those annual expectations.
"You focus on the task at hand," Sarkisian said. "I think preseason hype, it's great for the buzz. It's great for the conference. It's good for our fans and all that, but really, for us, I'm focused on Day One of practice, and how many reps Adoree [Jackson] is going to get on offense and defense, and how many reps is Cody getting, and [backup quarterbacks] Max Browne and Sam Darnold and Ricky Town. Those are all the things that I'm focused on, because ultimately we have to perform."
Sarkisian might be less confident if his Trojans hadn't been agonizingly close to a remarkable season last fall. USC lost games on the final play against Arizona State and Utah, and the Trojans had a 17-0 lead at Boston College before collapsing.
"I wish I'd had us better prepared to finish those games," Sarkisian said. "We just didn't get it done for a variety of reasons, and that falls totally on me. I'm confident that that's going to change this fall, and if we can do that, then there are some really cool things out there for us to accomplish."
Now that the Trojans have welcomed a full class of elite high-school talent, the most probable reason for their late-game collapses could be erased. When USC couldn't finish in the fourth quarter, its lack of depth usually played a part.
"We're not at full numbers yet, but the numbers we have now are definitely a drastic measure compared to what it was," linebacker Su'a Cravens said. "The sanctions definitely hurt us. We don't use that as a crutch by any means, but we just didn't finish games, and we were tired, and guys were beat up and bruised. We had a lot of young guys playing last year. This year, that actually becomes a positive. Not only do they have that experience, but the starters have to go out and compete."
Kessler believes his third season as USC's starter is set up to be his best despite the losses of receiver Nelson Agholor and tailback Javorius Allen. The Trojans have their usual depth at the skill positions, and Kessler has spent the offseason filling the leadership role he learned from Matt Barkley three years ago.
"I really believe that we're where we want to be," Kessler said. "We've been through tough times. I'm not trying to sound dramatic, but it was difficult. There were games where we got to the third and fourth quarter, and we've only got two or three receivers. I'm not saying these guys have something to prove, but I think we're definitely playing for something a little bigger than ourselves."
This article was written by Greg Beacham from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.