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USC moves on, as does the Pac-12

As USC has labored under severe scholarship restrictions, the rest of the Pac-12 has gotten stronger. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- Fifth-year senior tight end Randall Telfer signed with USC in 2010. It had long been his dream to be a Trojan. His favorite player? Reggie Bush.

True freshman Adoree' Jackson signed with USC in 2014. The native of Belleville, Illinois, grew up with no attachment to USC -- until he saw video of Reggie Bush, who became his favorite player.

Telfer knew USC faced NCAA sanctions when he signed, but he didn't know how severe. That understanding only hit him after a 50-0 victory over UCLA and 10-2 record in 2011 was followed by ... nothing. No bowl. Little national relevance. Jackson knew of USC's NCAA sanctions when he signed, but he also was aware the scholarship penalties expired with his recruiting class. As a first-year player, he knows no difference between USC having 85 guys on scholarship and 65, at least not yet, and he's got enough on his mind playing both ways as a true freshman.

These two, veteran and new Trojans, connect as starters for a 7-3 team trying to backdoor its way back into the Pac-12's South division race and mutually eyeballing archival UCLA on Saturday. They connect as the before and after of sanctions brought on by Bush's misdeeds. They connect on their extensive playing time with little depth surrounding them due to scholarship reductions. They connect on a hopeful yet uncertain future for the program. They connect on their continued esteem for Bush, who was formally disassociated from the program as part of the NCAA sanctions.

"To us, Reggie Bush is one of the greatest players to ever play here, and I think he should be remembered as that, rather than all the other things he got in trouble for," Telfer said. "I think a lot of the guys would like to see him around."

Said Jackson, "I don't think nothing negative about him. People always ask me if I feel bad or ashamed about Reggie Bush. I say 'I don't in any way.' He's a great player. I know about the decision he made, but he's going to go down as one of the greatest players in college football history. The things that he's done, you can't really take that back. There's always going to be those memories."

Ah, those memories. Next fall will mark 10 years since Bush last scooted lickety-split through defenses, won the Heisman Trophy and left a generation of fans and young football players gaping. It also will be the Trojans' first fall with a full recruiting class in tow after NCAA sanctions.

Bush used to curlicue across a field as if he were running in fast-forward and the defense in slow motion. He did so as the symbolic distillation of one of college football's great dynastic runs. Bush and USC, so talented and exciting and hip. But then scandal: His family living in a house provided by a couple would-be agents. A four-year investigation followed, and then came NCAA penalties so extreme in their severity they became a scandal in themselves.

The wounds for all involved parties aren't fresh, but they still bleed when scratched. Bush, who's been battling injuries with the Detroit Lions, told ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein he still keeps up with USC, but he didn't have much to say as to whether he hopes for a future reconciliation with USC.

"I don't know. I have no idea," Bush said. "I haven't even thought about that, honestly. I've been thinking about where I am right now. That's in the past, and I've left that in the past."

In most respects, USC is trying to do the same. After all, time, we are told, heals all wounds. That aphorism suggests USC, which has gone a respectable 42-20 in four-plus seasons since Pete Carroll left and sanctions were announced, can again be made whole, can again return to former glory. While Lane Kiffin suffered as the man-after-the-man and often as his own worst enemy, first-year coach Steve Sarkisian has been handed a potentially winning hand: A program with great tradition, fancy new facilities and no more burdensome sanctions.

But the Pac-12 and college football has changed since The Age of Carroll, when the Trojans won an unprecedented seven consecutive Pac-10 titles.

"I don't know," Sarkisian said after a pause when asked if USC can again reach its Carroll-ian heights. "It had never been done before. I don't know if it's fair to say we can win seven titles in a row, especially with the new [Pac-12] format."

Another pause.

"But I think we can compete for a championship every single year."

The circus

A reporter is ticking off the lunacy surrounding USC's 2014 season both on and off the field: Cornerback Josh Shaw's fabricated story about saving a drowning nephew; athletic director and College Football Playoff committee member Pat Haden storming the field like it was a beach in Normandy; a defeat yanked from the jaws of victory via a Hail Mary pass against Arizona State; former running back LenDale White ranting on Twitter about Haden and Sarkisian after he was escorted out of the Coliseum for vague reasons.

"Don't forget about Anthony Brown," Sarkisian added in reference to the disgruntled reserve player who called Sarkisian a "racist" on Instagram as he left the team (he later deleted the post).

USC almost can't help being a soap opera. Hey, it's L.A. One of the reasons Haden hired Sarkisian is his ability to deftly deal with the media and the unique demands of coaching the Trojans in the City of Angels, which Carroll smoothly negotiated and Kiffin could not.

Carroll had three distinct strengths: charisma, recruiting aptitude and coaching skill. Kiffin was a good recruiter but failed at the other two. Sarkisian hits the recruiting and charisma bases, but his coaching aptitude remains a subject of debate. He rebuilt Washington from a winless team in 2008 into a consistent bowl team that finished 9-4 last season. But three consecutive seven-win seasons before that, including some inexplicably poor performances, particularly on the road, had some USC fans greeting his hiring with a lukewarm embrace.

This season's feeble effort at Boston College and last-second losses to ASU and Utah haven't earned Sarkisian much traction in year one. Haden, for one, doesn't believe his fan base understands what it means to have fewer than 60 scholarship players available, with typically fewer than 45 players seeing action, including 11 true freshmen.

"No. No they don't," Haden said. "It's frustrating. Everybody says we're making excuses -- they're not excuses. They are facts. Just facts."

Sarkisian mostly has taken the high road with the numbers -- as in, no excuses -- but numbers also are a root cause of what he sees as his team's biggest issue: finishing. Because the Trojans have cut back on hitting to protect a thin roster, they are not as seasoned with intense competition in practice. As a result, they wear down and lose focus and get tight.

"We were in tight games when Pete was here, too, but there was a level of knowing that we were going to make the play at the critical moment," Sarkisian said. "There was a real belief in that. I don't want to say I assumed it was still here, but you don't really know. We obviously have had some chances here in critical moments, and you think, 'Oh, USC is going to make that play.' We've had a couple of those, and we've missed some chances. We have to get the belief and execution at the most critical moments."

As for the off-the-field distractions, Sarkisian said they were a non-factor in the locker room. In fact, in his amusing way of making a lemon meringue pie out of lemons, he said having tabloid coverage from entities such as TMZ around the team actually might be a selling point for recruiting in an odd sort of way.

"I think there is some benefit to that," he said. "It prepares guys for the NFL. They are used to being around it. They know how to compartmentalize, focus on what they can control."

Kiffin, Mora and complications

Another reason Haden hired Sarkisian: He knows USC. He was Carroll's top offensive assistant for most of the Trojans' dynastic run. During that span, he became close friends with Kiffin. So when Kiffin was fired and he was hired, things were a bit awkward. The two still talk -- Kiffin is now running Nick Saban's offense at Alabama -- though not really about USC, and Sarkisian has consistently defended the "positives that I think people missed while Lane was here."

What seems more likely to become complicated is his relationship with third-year UCLA coach Jim Mora. They became friends when Mora, who grew up around and played for Washington, used the Huskies facilities while rehabbing a knee injury. Mora has repeatedly cited that time as when he developed a desire to become a college coach.

Sarkisian previously became friends with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, even though the Ducks and Huskies fan bases can't stand each other. So there's a precedent for putting some friendly into a rivalry. Yet there's proximity between USC and UCLA, which are in a battle for a city that is unique in college football, not to mention a turf war for Southern California recruiting, the Pac-12's prime real estate for elite athletes, which USC fans expect to control.

"Jim and I, we talk, we text, like I would other coaches -- like I did with Chip when he was at Oregon," Sarkisian said. "I respect the heck out of Jim. I think he's done a fabulous job at UCLA. We're both highly competitive guys, and there's a barrier, naturally. That doesn't mean we can't get along. But we're not sharing our secrets to success, that's for sure."

While Rick Neuheisel wasn't able to take advantage when USC was hit by NCAA sanctions, Mora has righted the Bruins. He's aiming for a third consecutive win over the Trojans, which would keep UCLA in the South division hunt and eliminate USC. The recruiting battle, which Sarkisian seemingly won this past February, should only get more bitter. Is L.A. big enough for two national title contenders? Historically, it hasn't been.

UCLA is winning one notable battle this season: attendance. While USC has pretty much owned the top spot in Pac-10/12 attendance through the years, UCLA is presently No. 1 in the conference and averaging 76,703 fans through four home games, compared to 72,009 for USC in five. USC averaged 84,799 fans in 2009, Carroll's last year, and surged to 87,945 in 2012, when the Trojans started ranked No. 1. They were at 73,126 in 2013.

That's a substantial revenue downturn. While USC is widely viewed as a "have" program, it desperately wants to renovate the majestic but aging Coliseum. That's going to require significant donations from its fan base, one that can get easily distracted by L.A. happenings when the Trojans aren't winning.

"It's going to help if we have a team that gets on a hot streak here as we try to raise money for a remodeled Coliseum," Haden said. "There's no way around it."

Winning solves all problems in college football, but USC fans tend to think only in terms of championships. When asked what fans should expect, Haden understood the potential mire of such an inquiry.

"The hard part is winning enough games to keep people satisfied," he said. "But we should be in the hunt in the Pac-12 South nearly every year. Absolutely."

Return to glory?

Sarkisian said he expects USC to be close to a full slate of 85 scholarship players by 2016. His expectation is to be in the mid-70s next fall, after signing a full class of 25, which should include six or seven mid-year enrollees.

Considering most programs annually fall short of 85 available scholarship players, due to natural roster attrition, handwringing over numbers won't carry much freight with Trojans fans going forward. Moreover, USC looks like a potential preseason top-10 team in 2015, with 18 or so starting position players slated to return, including quarterback Cody Kessler, whose breakout season likely will earn him second-team All-Pac-12 honors in a few weeks. He will lead the 2015 class of signal-callers in the Conference of Quarterbacks, which is not atypical for USC to do. At least, it wasn't during the Carroll years.

"The bar was set so high here -- Rose Bowls and national championships -- and we're not there yet. It's definitely tough. But I think we are on the right path. I want to get USC back to what it was."
USC QB Cody Kessler

Although there are sure to be a number of early NFL defections, as there always are for USC, including junior All-American defensive tackle Leonard Williams and receiver Nelson Agholor, the Trojans look like the preseason favorite in what should be a deep Pac-12 South division. In other words, the expectations will be high. The most recent time that happened, when USC started 2012 ranked No. 1, things went haywire, and Kiffin's standing quickly eroded.

USC's players and coaches want to embrace the high expectations, but this isn't 2004. The conference is much deeper than it was during Carroll's tenure. The Pac-10 didn't start playing nine conference games until 2006. It didn't have a conference title game until it became the Pac-12 in 2011. An infusion of TV money has narrowed the gap between the haves and have-nots, most notably with the quality of coaching and facilities upgrades. Oregon has become a national power, UCLA is surging under Mora, and sleeping giant Arizona State is seemingly awakening. The conference has no easy outs.

It will be more difficult for one team to dominate, much less win 34 consecutive games, as Carroll did.

"The bar was set so high here -- Rose Bowls and national championships -- and we're not there yet," Kessler said. "It's definitely tough. But I think we are on the right path. I want to get USC back to what it was."

Nothing speaks to what USC "was" better than highlights of Bush and the Trojans from 2003 to 2005. To say the program is well on its way to moving on, however, wouldn't be entirely accurate. Haden, who has repeatedly called the sanctions "unfair," is not alone in admitting to a significant curiosity over potentially damning revelations about the NCAA's USC investigation that could emerge from former Trojans assistant Todd McNair's defamation lawsuit against the NCAA. The desire for vindication -- revenge? -- still lingers. Bush's ghost still haunts Heritage Hall.

While, seemingly to a man, USC players speak of Bush with reverence, others around the program labor a bit more over his legacy and whether healing has really taken place.

"That is a complicated question," Haden said. "Clearly one of the greatest players to ever play at USC ... But we're still feeling the effect [of the sanctions], and these kids were all in junior high school when it all happened. So we have mixed sentiments."

Bush, for one, isn't revisiting his sentiments on the matter. "I'm kind of focused on right now, what's in front of me," he said.

The sentiments, however, are not mixed on what USC should be going forward. As Sarkisian and Haden both said, the Trojans again expect to compete for championships. Every. Single. Year.