If Southern California players fail to attain what the majority of the college football world expects, a third straight national title and a second consecutive Heisman Trophy, some critics will point to two men who were mere toddlers during the school's last golden era in the 1970s.
One of the most prominent questions about the Trojans, arguably Los Angeles' premier athletic attraction, concerns offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian, the semi-anonymous assistants who will replace Norm Chow, the longstanding offensive guru who left his coordinator position to assume a similar role with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
USC has won 22 consecutive games by an average of 25.3 points. And with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and another finalist, running back Reggie Bush, together again in one backfield, USC is poised to become the first school to win three straight national titles since 1936, when the AP poll was introduced.
"They may be fairly decent in any of the divisions in the NFL," said George Cortez, the offensive coordinator of Pacific-10 rival California, perhaps only half jokingly. "They are extremely talented on offense."
All of it -- the expectation of perfection, the abundance of talent, the opportunity at history -- amplifies pressure on Kiffin, 30, and Sarkisian, 31, whose combined ages barely surpass that of Chow, the 59-year-old sage. Chow became a Brigham Young graduate assistant one year before Sarkisian was born.
"Definitely there is pressure," Sarkisian said in a telephone interview. "I wouldn't be human if I did not say so, but when you get faced with pressure you can go one of two ways. You can take it on and get excited about it, or you can shy away and hide."
The past two national championship seasons have been addressed exactly zero times with this team, said Kiffin, adding: "No rings. No talk. No posters. That is a good DVD that goes in the history book. This is a different team."
Their youth is accompanied by distinguished pedigrees. Kiffin's father, Monte, is the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and worked with USC Coach Pete Carroll on three NFL staffs. A former Fresno State quarterback, Lane Kiffin has been with the Trojans since 2001, working primarily as wide receivers coach under Chow.
Sarkisian, USC's assistant head coach, had two record-setting seasons in the mid-1990s at BYU, where he played quarterback for Chow, who was the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. After coaching USC's quarterbacks for two seasons, Sarkisian worked as an Oakland Raiders assistant last year.
Leinart acknowledged before summer camp began that he was "upset" when Chow left because of the comfort level and personal relationship the two had. But he added: "The good thing about this year is the coaches are younger and we can relate to them really well. These guys are younger, fiery and they want us to do well. I saw that in spring ball; we did not miss a beat."
Leinart spent part of his summer posing for magazine photo shoots. So did Bush. The pair also began a video blog (www.mattreggietv.com) as part of the school's efforts to fuel dual Heisman campaigns. Kiffin and Sarkisian, however, spent time holed up in a video room reviewing every USC snap last season.
Kiffin called it a "cleaning out" session. Sarkisian added that it allowed him to get a feel for the "personality" of the team since he was not with the players in 2004. He already knew who made plays, he said, but yearned to know who played physically and what plays certain guys could not make.
Neither assistant has aspirations for the offense to operate as efficiently as last season, which concluded with a 55-19 drubbing of previously undefeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4. "No, we expect to be better," Kiffin said in a telephone interview. "That's out goal, to do things better than they have ever been done before."
Kiffin and Sarkisian, who is known as "Sark," took other measures to keep Leinart sharp after he decided to return to school for his senior season even though he likely would have been the top pick in the NFL draft. Leinart, who sat out spring practice after undergoing elbow surgery in January, dissected NFL film with Sarkisian, examining multiple defensive looks and becoming familiar with defensive coordinators he may be facing in the future.
"We just wanted to give him a little project," Sarkisian said, "to keep him hungry."
In an attempt to stay "cutting edge," Sarkisian said he joined Kiffin for what has become Kiffin's annual offseason trip to Tampa to meet with Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden and talk game planning.
It has been widely speculated that Chow and Carroll did not part ways amicably, although neither party has acknowledged as much. That said, Carroll knows dealing with Chow's absence could be the Trojans' definitive challenge.
"If we can do this, what can't we do?" Carroll said. "If we can sustain losing Norm . . . what can't we handle?"