USC players and coaches spent the offseason telling everyone who would listen that they were chasing a national championship in 2015. Five weeks into the season, not only were those hopes dashed with a 3-2 record, but coach Steve Sarkisian’s tenure was over -- fired after reportedly showing up intoxicated to a team meeting.
Under the leadership of offensive coordinator-turned-interim coach Clay Helton, another drama-filled season in Los Angeles quickly got better as the Trojans bounced back to win the Pac-12 South title and, as a result, Helton was named the permanent head coach. A 41-22 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, though, prevented a Rose Bowl berth, and two days later, Helton fired four assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. The next day, Sarkisian sued USC for wrongful termination. It’s never dull at USC (which will play Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30).
Team MVP: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. CB/WR/RET Adoree’ Jackson was voted the team MVP and LB Su’a Cravens played at an All-American level, but whenever Smith-Schuster was on the field, he was the best player.
Season highlights: Two games stick out. 1) A 42-24 win over Utah, which came into the Coliseum ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. At that point, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was viewed as a strong candidate for the USC job. That chatter quieted down quickly. 2) The 40-21 win over rival UCLA. It ended a three-game skid to the Bruins and vaulted the Trojans to the title game. If USC lost, it’s unclear what Helton’s chances would have been at landing the permanent gig.
Season lowlights: The Trojans lost five games, but only one came against a team that, over the entirety of the season, turned out to be inferior to USC: Washington. The Trojans' clear schematic disadvantage was on display in that 17-12 loss at home to Sarkisian’s former team.
Biggest reason for optimism heading into 2016: LB Cam Smith, RB Ronald Jones II and CB Iman Marshall were three of several true freshmen who stepped right in and played at high levels for most of the season. They have to replace QB Cody Kessler, but Max Browne, once a highly regarded recruit, should be ready and the offense returns nearly every important piece.
Biggest area of need/improvement heading into 2016: Stability. The talent is there. The depth is there. If the Trojans have a drama-free environment in which football can be the focus, USC should be among the favorites in the Pac-12.
Odd and ends: By 2019, USC expects a $270 million renovation of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to be complete. Here’s what it’s expected to look like when it’s done: