USC aims to sack Oregon, regain Pac-12 throne

BURBANK, Calif. -- The power that is and the power that was. The once and future Pac-12 kings. The question is which is USC and which is Oregon?

USC has 11 national championships and Oregon has zero. Oregon owns four of the last six Pac-12 titles. USC hasn't won a conference title since 2008.

Yet USC is the media's choice to win the Pac-12 in 2015. Oregon, the pick in five of the previous six seasons, is not. USC is the team with the Heisman Trophy candidate behind center -- three-year starter Cody Kessler -- while Oregon is uncertain who will replace its all-time best quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

Is USC back -- this time for real? -- and not like the last time it was the preseason media darling in 2012, when the Trojans spiraled to a 7-6 finish.

"It's somewhat of a beauty contest right now," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I really don't think our guys are concerned with it."

Speaking of beauty contests, you also might have heard that Oregon is more, er, modern with its uniform selections, while USC takes its traditional cardinal and gold very, very seriously.

Or as Sarkisian said. "We're not going to take the field in 13 different uniforms in 13 different games this fall. We're going to wear cardinal and gold. You know what we wear."

Ladies and gentlemen ... shots fired. Oregon fans immediately took to Twitter upon learning of Sarkisian's remark to point out that his all-time record against Oregon is 0-5, with all five games decided by at least 17 points, though all five games were when he led Washington, the Ducks' most bitter rival.

Oregon's rise as a national power has been as much about its "win the day" culture as its up-tempo offense and postmodern garb. The Ducks will tell you they don't care about outside opinions or influences, least of all preseason polls. And yet ...

"I always tell our guys, whatever the noise is that you listen to, if it's your girlfriend, your wife, the media, Twitter, whoever, if you use that for motivation, great," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "If you use it to dwell on or think about something else, that does nobody any good. So if somebody's sitting at home going, 'Those jerks didn't vote us for whatever!' and they go lift. Great. But we don't think about that too much."

The Ducks and Trojans haven't played since 2012. That also is the last year the Trojans were tapped as the conference's preseason favorite. Oregon rolled over the Trojans that year 62-51, but Stanford ended up winning the Pac-12 title.

USC is in its second season no longer yoked by NCAA sanctions. While Sarkisian said the team will only be in the "mid-70s" with scholarship players, well below the NCAA maximum of 85, the feeling among the media sorts is the Trojans now have enough depth to support A-list frontline talent to win the conference, which means the Trojans are again in the national title hunt.

Yet there is plenty of skepticism. For one, there are a lot of good teams in the Pac-12 who have no fear of USC. While a Nov. 21 game at Oregon looks like the conference's most scintillating date, the Trojans' biggest issue likely will be emerging from the South Division, where five teams finished ranked in the Top 25 last year and all five justifiably believe they will be better this fall.

USC still has to prove itself, to prove it can be consistent, to prove it won't throw up on itself late in games, to prove it won't get distracted by its own reflection in 2015, as it seemed to do in 2012.

When you intimate those sorts of bright lights, big city problems with USC, the Trojans recoil. You've got them all wrong, they say.

"We don't need all the cameras and we don't need all the spotlight," sophomore first-team All-Pac-12 linebacker Su'a Cravens said. "That comes with USC, but we don't need it. I think that's what makes us great."

Obviously, Cravens isn't alluding to greatness he's experienced as a Trojan. He is looking backward to a period that is just starting to be covered in a light film of dust. When folks ask Sarkisian if USC is again ready for its national close-up, they reference the Pete Carroll years, when Sarkisian was quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator. While USC has several eras of West Coast dominance, Carroll's seven consecutive conference titles from 2002 to 2008 seem most relevant today.

While some view those teams as stunning collections of talent immersed in a roguish, Hollywood vibe, Sarkisian begs to differ.

"It wasn't about what we looked like walking around town," he said. "You know what made them great? They worked hard."

A lack of hard work wasn't necessarily the problem in 2014. USC finished 9-4 and ranked 20th, but the season was interspersed with uninspired and boneheaded play that had fans slapping their foreheads in exasperation. As bad as the blowout loss to city rival UCLA was, three defeats by 11 combined points might linger even more as caution signals for believing USC is poised to again party like its 2004.

"Well, we lost two games on the last play of the game," Sarkisian said. "If we win those two games, we're playing for a conference championship and who knows after that? So to grade anything is how could I have prepared us better to finish those tight games that we didn't win against Arizona State, against Utah? How could we have performed better when we were ahead 17-0 against Boston College? Because it could have been drastically different."

Sarkisian concludes, "We just didn't get it done for a variety of reasons and that falls totally on me."

You might remember high expectations crashing down on Lane Kiffin in 2012, leading to his dismissal midway through the 2013 season. Kiffin and Sarkisian shared the Trojans offense under Carroll and remain friends, though obviously shop talk is a bit awkward.

Like Kiffin, Sarkisian is considered an excellent recruiter. And, like Kiffin, he's yet to prove he can build a program that possesses the Nick Saban/Urban Meyer-like focus -- "The Process" -- to win a championship.

USC might be the old-school traditional power, but it's Oregon that casually assumes the air of unvanquished lords of the Pac-12 manor.

Preseason polls?

Said Oregon linebacker Rodney Hardrick: "We don't care about that. We just follow our culture, a constant path of success and excellence."