Trojans have talent, must show toughness to reach lofty expectations

Steve Sarkisian has never won a Pac-12 title in six years as a head coach in the conference. Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- Since training camp opened for the USC Trojans, head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff have worked on fundamentals, team drills, special situations, and the "Finish Challenge," a competition to avoid end-of-game collapses.

It’s hoped these practices and the "Finish Challenge" will pay dividends during the heat of a foreboding Pac-12 schedule and a trip to Notre Dame. Sarkisian is optimistic that all the attention to detail will eventually put his team in position to overcome a series of 2015 challenges and win a championship.

With the opener against Arkansas State about two weeks away, the one crucial area the coaching staff can preach about, but the team can’t realistically practice, is handling the emotional pressures on and off the field.

The stress will come from not only being picked to win the Pac-12 South Division and ensuing conference championship, but the expectations of contending for an invite into the College Football Playoff.

The reality is there is no way of telling how the inexperienced 2015 Trojans will react to the expectations of a season that includes high-profile road games (Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Oregon), the late November rivalry game against UCLA at the Coliseum, and the increasing media scrutiny each week of the season.

None of the USC players have ever won a Pac-12 South Division championship, so though there is little argument the Trojans have the physical talent to win every game they play, there is no way of knowing how they will react during the heat of a Pac-12 and national "pennant race."

The 2015 Trojans can learn from the 2012 Trojans who were the preseason No. 1 back then and became the poster child for succumbing to the national spotlight. From former head coach Lane Kiffin to his players, their inexperience in dealing with such a high-profile situation saw them melt from the heat of week-to-week expectations.

Now think about it, even with highly touted senior quarterback Matt Barkley, 19 returning starters, and a host of all-stars, that 2012 team’s "unfinished business" self-destructed into the final abyss of a 7-6 record, which isn’t to suggest the 2015 Trojans will pull a repeat.

There are 19 Trojans who were part of the 2012 program, so their experience could be positive. Quarterback Cody Kessler enrolled in the spring of 2011, so if anybody should know how to handle this season, it would be the fifth-year senior and Heisman Trophy candidate out of Bakersfield, California.

But is experience overrated in fulfilling championship expectations?

Many years ago, I was introduced to legendary basketball center Bill Russell, who at the time was the radio host of a very popular sports talk show on local Los Angeles affiliate KABC. If anybody knew about winning championships, it was the former Boston Celtics great.

On the day I met "Russ," he was wearing a short that read, "Experience ain’t (crap)."

Russell said that though experience is very important, it’s still about talent and you need that combined with experience to make a successful run at a championship. Of course, when you have an intimidating figure and performer like Russell, winning a championship is made a tad easier.

Russell wasn’t shy during the conversation in also mentioning the mental toughness of his Hall of Fame Celtics head coach, Red Auerbach, the fearless leader who could melt glass with his signature glare.

The question for the USC Trojans is do they have Auerbach toughness in Sarkisian to lead the Trojans, and does this team have one or more Russell types to lead them through the mind games of winning a title?

Perhaps Sarkisian, who has never won a Pac-12 title in six years as a head coach in the conference, can model a toughness that will be embraced by his Trojans.

Maybe the Trojans do have the hardcore leadership in Kessler, All-Pac-12 senior center Max Tuerk, All-Pac-12 junior linebacker Su'a Cravens, and super sophomores like receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback/receiver Adoree' Jackson to keep the ship afloat when the waters get rough and unruly.

The bottom line: Can the Trojans become champions without any experience in surviving and winning championships?

Sure they can, but it all becomes a week-to-week head game, so we’ll see if these Trojans have the mental toughness for such a task to coincide with their obvious physical skills.