IF USC Is Going to Be a National Title Contender, Defense Will Lead the Way

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IMarch 14, 2014

Southern California safety Su'a Cravens, right, intercepts a pass as Stanford tight end Davis Dudchock looks on during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, in Los Angeles. USC won 20-17. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

New Southern Cal head coach Steve Sarkisian may be known for his offensive prowess, and USC may be glamorous because of its offensive history, but the real secret to its success is its defense. If it weren't for the defense in 2013, USC wouldn't have won 10 games amid all the chaos that happened around the team. 

Last season's 3-2 start set off a chain of strange events, as head coach Lane Kiffin was relieved of his duties, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron took over as interim head coach, and the team still managed to win 10 games. 

Yet, that wasn't good enough for Orgeron to get the permanent head coaching job, and he split after Sarkisian's hire in December. 

As for the defense making USC a contender, the offensive numbers tell the story for us. The Trojans finished last season No. 10 in total offense (399.9 yards per game) and passing (3,180 total yards) in the Pac-12, and No. 7 in rushing offense (172.8 yards per game) in the conference. 

Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

With numbers like that and a nine-win regular season, clearly the defense had to have pulled its weight and then some. 

The defense finished ranked No. 3 in the Pac-12 in scoring (21.2 points per game), No. 1 in total defense (335.2 yards per game), No. 2 in rushing defense (120.6 yards per game) and No. 2 in passing defense (214.6 yards per game).

With a performance like that, it would only be natural to see the NFL think highly of Orgeron's defense. However, just two players—defensive end George Uko and safety Dion Bailey—will head to the NFL draft early.

The good news is that despite the loss of five players from the 2013 defensive two-deep depth chart, USC had a very young defense overall last season. In fact, perhaps the biggest name on the defense, soon-to-be sophomore safety Su'a Cravens, returns. That's a good place to build from.

Cravens finished last year with 52 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and five passes defensed, just to name a few of his highlights. 

If that's the beginning for Cravens, it is a good sign for the fresh start the group will get under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. 

Sarkisian will entrust Wilcox, who was his defensive coordinator at Washington, with keeping up USC's defensive tradition.

The good news there is that Wilcox immediately led a turnaround of a defense that was ranked 105th or worse in every major category when he got on campus. In 2013, Washington ranked in the top 45 of all the major categories except rushing defense. 

Wilcox will have plenty of talent to work with, as eight starters off the 2013 Trojans defense return. It will be interesting to see what he can do with perhaps the greatest amount of talent he's ever had to work with at one time.

However, the detractors may point out that USC traded one offensive guru for another coach who will call the plays, and that means less time spent overseeing what's happening on defense.

As ESPN.com's Steve Bisheff points out, that hasn't worked out too well for the Men of Troy in the past. 

In fact, a quick look at the coaches who have been successful at USC over the last 40 years—namely John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll—it was always the defense that sparked championship runs. 

Sure, under McKay there was O.J. Simpson, Mike Garrett and others on offense, but the real stars were on the other side in a group nicknamed "The Wild Bunch." Under Robinson, for every offensive star there were guys like Ronnie Lott or Joey Browner, and the list is much the same for Pete Carroll. 

The common denominator for all three coaches was that they were equally attentive to both sides of the ball. 

If Sarkisian is to be successful in his return to USC, he would be wise to learn from his mentor, Carroll, and find a way to be more involved in the defense than his predecessor was.  

For what it's worth, Carroll was a Sarkisian fan from the get go, according to reports from his most recent talk on the USC campus, per Rich Hammond of The Orange County Register:

If Carroll was right in backing Sarkisian, it won't be his offense that gets USC back to winning championships—it will be maintaining the defensive tradition that will matter most. 


*Andy Coppens is a National College Football Featured Columnist. All stats courtesy Pac-12.com. You can follow Andy on Twitter: @ andycoppens