Nike-Gloves

Few teams endured a bigger roller coaster ride of a 2013 season than the USC Trojans, who got off to such a poor start that head coach Lane Kiffin was fired after just five games. However, under the leadership of interim coaches Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, USC won seven of its final nine games, finishing with a 10-4 record. Now under the direction of former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans appear to be a viable challenger to UCLA and ASU in the Pac-12 South, as long as they can avoid the injury bug. Though the Trojans lack the depth that most of their opponents have, they still have the A-list talent, especially at key spots on the roster, to make a run at College Football Playoff tickets in 2014.

After finally and rightfully earning the starting quarterback spot for good in the third game of the season, Cody Kessler went on to have a fairly successful first season under center for the Trojans, completing over 65 percent of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. While not quite the prototype passer that USC has deployed over the last decade, Kessler nonetheless proved to be adept at both protecting the football and improvising when needed, showing off surprising mobility on occasion. If Kessler can take another step in the right direction in terms of productivity and leadership, it will go a long ways towards helping the Trojans snag College Football Playoff tickets. The receiving corps loses 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, but junior Nelson Agholor appears primed to become one of the conference’s best receivers.

For all the hype surrounding the implementation of an up-tempo offense at USC, the backbone of the unit will still be the ground game, which features at least four backs who have shown glimpses of stardom. The leading returning rusher is junior Buck Allen, who emerged from obscurity to post a highly productive second half of the season. He will be joined in the Trojans’ backfield by junior Tre Madden and sophomores Ty Isaac and Justin Davis.

The Trojans’ defense improved by leaps and bounds last year, and returns several of the players that keyed the turnaround from a highly disappointing 2012 season. The star on the defensive side of the ball is junior DL Leonard Williams, who seems destined to be among the first players selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. A hulking presence along the line at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, Williams is surprisingly agile and active, lining up all across the Trojans’ defensive front. He is joined on the Trojans’ defense by leading tackler Hayes Pullard, a three-year starter at linebacker, as well as DBs Josh Shaw and Su’a Cravens, who can each line up at multiple positions in the secondary. If the defense can perform at a level similar to or above last season’s unit, USC has a realistic chance to snag College Football Playoff tickets.