USC Football’s 2015 is Tied to UCLA With Hype and Expectations


Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The differences between USC football’s Steve Sarkisian and UCLA head coach Jim Mora were stark last week at Pac-12 media days, with one juggling expectations around a program expected to rise and the other dancing around concerns about a program due for a fall.

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Sarkisian’s expectations include a stronger showing against Mora’s Bruins in 2015. He acknowledged, without explicitly doing so, the pressure on him to deal with the “UCLA problem” which has dogged USC of late.

“I don’t know if it’s ever too soon to start thinking about UCLA, quite honestly,” Sarkisian said on the subject of the crosstown rivalry.

His counterpart sees it quite a bit differently.

When asked if he’s looked ahead to the USC game, Mora answered, “No, I honestly haven’t. That’s not my nature. I just feel like it’s a disservice to everybody involved in our program, fans, students, players.”

It is possible Mora can afford to not be looking forward more than Sarkisian can. The UCLA head coach has not lost to USC during his tenure, besting each of the three head coaches the Trojans have placed in front of him.

“When you come to USC, the expectations are what they are.”-Steve Sarkisian

With USC fans in Los Angeles suffering the indignity of losing to their bitter local rival three years running, the pressure is on Sarkisian to make things right.

And to make matters more difficult, Sarkisian faces plenty of other unique pressures as the head coach of USC compared to Mora. Notably, those are championship expectations that bloom every offseason, whether based in reality or not.

To his credit, Sarkisian has never shied away from the pressure.

“If the expectations were going to be too big, this wasn’t going to be the place for you,” Sarkisian said. “I think we do a good job of expressing that in recruiting. We do a good job of expressing that when we’re hiring assistant coaches. I think Pat did an amazing job of expressing that to me when it came to the hiring process for me.

“When you come to USC, the expectations are what they are.”

Over in Westwood, Mora isn’t exactly shying away from rising expectations around his program, but he does prefer UCLA’s ability to fly under the radar in 2015 compared to last year.

“I would like no one to ever rank us, and I’d like no one to ever cover us, and I’d like to never be on TV and no one talk about us until the end of the year, but that’s not going to happen,” said Mora.

There is no question that media attention around USC and UCLA is heavily skewed in the Trojans’ favor. And there is no doubt it feeds into the identities and ambitions of each program.

“The media loves them,” UCLA linebacker Leon Hollins said.

“People look at us and, for whatever reason, say, ‘It’s UCLA, they’re OK, they are going to show a little bit, but then they are going to fall off the map’,” said Hollins. “It befuddles me because how much talent we have and how much we are overlooked. I’m not slighted by that. It just puts a chip on our shoulders.”

On the USC side of things, where the underrated card is hardly ever available, the Trojans could use their experience with media expectations to serve as a grounding wire.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Especially since they enter the season with so many parallels to last year’s UCLA team, which struggled to live up to the national hype last season in Brett Hundley’s final season.

National title aspirations? Check. A senior quarterback? Check.

Being labeled as the sexy pick to make the College Football Playoffs? Check.

Having to replace the team’s best player, who happens to be an All-American on defense? Check.

Despite the areas that USC must improve on this season, it would be easy to overindulge on the pressures of expectations and become crippled by getting ahead of themselves, in regards to UCLA and the national scene.

Mora admitted that last year the Bruins did too much looking ahead, which got them into trouble.

And Cody Kessler himself said that enjoying the hype was the demise of the 2012 team that started season ranked No. 1, only to finish 7-6 and embarrassed in El Paso.

Sarkisian would do well to take heed.

To their credit, this team is nothing like Lane Kiffin’s. They haven’t had the satisfaction of beating UCLA 50-0, stunning a highly ranked Oregon in Eugene or a 10-2 season on their resume.

They’ve had two four-loss seasons in a row with Kessler at quarterback, while leaving three should-be wins on the field last year. There’s no reason to look ahead or savor the hype.

“It means nothing,” said Kessler last week. “The only part that I like about it, is that these guys have worked so hard in the offseason, in the weight room, in the classroom and everything they’ve done. So it’s kinda cool to see.

“They deserve it, but these expectations for us are always going to be expected at USC.”

He’s right. And using surface logic with Kessler and likely Su’a Cravens playing their final seasons in college, along with the Bruins having to break in a new quarterback, those expectations are to beat UCLA and get to the playoffs.

One of those expectations is completely realistic. The other will require building off of everything it takes to topple the Bruins to reach that goal.

Both are what has Sarkisian’s coaching seat on warm after the most successful first season for a head coach since 1976.

But the real possibility of both is also what has Trojan fans foaming at the mouth over the idea that this season is the one to prove that “USC is back.”

The Trojans just need to take care that “USC is back” does not become the new “UCLA runs LA.” If you need to keep saying it, it’s probably not true.

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