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2014 USC Year In Review: Football

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We look back at the highs and lows of USC athletics in 2014: starting with a football program that has reached the end of the sanctions era.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the last time in 2014, it's Gameday.

The Trojans are set to take the field one more time in the National University Holiday Bowl as head coach Steve Sarkisian seeks to end year one at Troy with the first nine-win season of his career and Leonard Williams makes what could be his collegiate finale before heading off to Radio City to sit in the green room with Marcus Mariota.

San Diego marks the end of a 2014 filled with landmark highs and crushing lows for Pat Haden's athletic department. This summer, USC became the third school to amass 100 NCAA championships. Several long-suffering teams have made a comeback under new coaches, athletic complexes have been given a gorgeous makeover, and renovation plans for the Coliseum are now in the works.

On the other hand, there have been some major disappointments, with men's basketball and baseball failing to reach the NCAA Tournament and football failing to notch a 10-win season after doing so last year with three different head coaches.

So what does 2015 have in store for USC? Can the football team rebuild its depth quickly? Can the basketball program begin to get people back in the seats at the Galen Center? Can the men's tennis team continue its dynasty? Will Pat Haden go medieval on these garbage Pac-12 refs?

Only time will tell, but for now, let's look back at the highlights and lowlights of 2014, starting with USC's crown jewel: the Trojan football program.

Six Point Buck

After breaking through as a fourth-stringer in 2013, Buck Allen stepped forward in 2014 as one of the most prolific tailbacks on the West Coast. He leads the Pac-12 in all-purpose offense with 1,779 yards and nine touchdowns, and for a couple of weeks, he was an outsider in the Heisman race, alongside running backs like the man he will go head-to-head against in San Diego, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah.

In the next couple of weeks, Allen will decide if he wants to take his momentum into the Draft, or if he wants to stay at USC. If he chooses the latter, 2015 could become an even bigger year for him, expanding his fame from the regional to the national stage.

The Devil On Their Backs

After getting humiliated year after year by Stanford, USC finally ended the Cardinal's recent dominance last season and took back a winning streak in an ugly game up in Palo Alto. Victory was assured when J.R. Tavai denied Stanford a game-winning final drive by crushing Kevin Hogan with a strip sack the Trojan defense recovered.

Unfortunately, one team's dominance has been replaced by another. The defining play of USC's season has become the last-second choke to Arizona State, when the SC pass coverage let Jaelen Strong, one of the Pac-12's best receivers, get behind them for a game-winning Hail Mary reception. Had USC blocked that pass, it would have given them a critical division victory that possibly could have put them in the Alamo or Fiesta Bowl. Instead, it's become part of a worrying narrative of fourth-quarter collapses the Trojans have suffered under Sarkisian, one that fans can only hope is due to the team's lack of depth rather than coaching.

New Blood

In 2016, USC will open their season at Jerry World in Dallas in a blockbuster match against Alabama. If USC enters that season in national headlines as a college football power reborn under Sark, it will largely be on the backs of the freshman class that has been his first batch of recruits.

USC's sanction-drained roster has allowed several true freshman to get massive amounts of playing time. Adoree' Jackson -- who used his five-star recruiting status to make the most teasing Signing Day announcement ever -- has become a dual threat at receiver and cornerback, and he even made some big returns on kickoffs as well. The offensive line trio of Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao have gained valuable experience -- and in some cases, some hard knocks from experienced defensive linemen -- as they prepare to become the core of their unit in the next two seasons. And then there's JuJu Smith, who became a superstar before even turning 18-years old with some spectacular catches reminiscent of the last Trojan wideout that wore No. 9.

Drowning

The Trojans can't seem to go through a season without a scandal, so this season's annual facepalmer came from Josh Shaw and his fake drowning nephew. The ensuing debacle cost Shaw his captaincy and a ten-game suspension, put the athletic department in a PR nightmare and made USC the butt of many jokes among ESPN gasbags.

Fortunately, the story didn't spiral into possible criminal activity on Shaw's behalf. It just seems like Shaw was only guilty of making an incredibly stupid lie to his coaches to cover up a messy argument with his girlfriend. The Holiday Bowl will be more important to Shaw than any other player who suits up today, as it serves as one last chance to show NFL scouts that he can still be an asset on Sunday despite the reputation that now lingers around him like a bad smell.

Meanwhile, in Seattle...

After two straight years of no Trojan alums in the Super Bowl, 2014 saw SC return to the big dance in the biggest way possible. Malcolm Smith, a seventh-round draft pick who made it a point to stay at SC in light of the sanctions to send a positive message about the program, is now a proud member of the Seahawks' Legion of Boom and scored a pick-six off Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. For that play, he became the third Trojan to win Super Bowl MVP honors, and he got to stand atop the championship platform as fellow Trojan Marcus Allen presented the Lombardi Trophy to him and his coach...Pete Carroll.

Ah, yes, Carroll. It's hard to say how many SC fans still hold a grudge against him for how he left, but there probably can't be that many. Shortly after climbing the NFL mountain, Carroll returned to SC for the first time since leaving the athletic office to speak at Bovard Auditorium and received a standing ovation. His victory in the pros has validated his victories at SC, and some writers are looking back at those years more fondly in spite of how they ended.

Now Carroll has the Seahawks in prime position to defend their championship, potentially securing the top seed in the NFC with a win on Sunday. With each big win, Carroll is showing the real reason why USC returned to power under his watch: because he's the best coach of the 21st century.