- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The senior class at Southern California knows from experience that where a team starts the season is not nearly as important as where it finishes.

With quarterback Cody Kessler leading 16 starters returning from a team that went 9-4 last season, the Trojans opened spring practice Tuesday hoping to finish with championships instead of unfulfilled expectations.

USC is already being touted as a popular pick to make the College Football Playoff, but Kessler understands what little impact those predictions have on the games. Kessler was a redshirt freshman in 2012 when the Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll, but stumbled to a 7-6 record.

“It’s really cliché, but it is all about how you finish,” said Kessler, now a redshirt senior.

Second-year coach Steve Sarkisian also shrugged off the early praise, instead choosing to focus on the myriad holes across the roster that must be addressed.

Defensive lineman Leonard Williams, expected to be the first defender off the board in the NFL draft, chose to skip his senior season along with leading rusher Javorius Allen and top receiver Nelson Agholor.

A porous secondary and a young offensive line that struggled at times should benefit from a season’s worth of experience, while the end of NCAA sanctions offers the prospect of better depth.

Sarkisian is also pushing the team to perform better in pressure situations at the end of games after last-second losses to Arizona State and Utah cost USC a berth in the Pac-12 championship game last season. Sarkisian is instituting a best-of-five drill at the end of every practice to simulate those conditions, with the defense getting the better of it on the first go-round.

“We don’t play a football game for six months,” Sarkisian said. “The key for us is to focus on today and how are we getting better today individually, how are we getting better as a team. Hype, the game, training camp, all that stuff is so far down the road we can’t worry about that stuff.”

A possible Heisman Trophy candidacy could be there for Kessler, who threw 39 touchdown passes with just five interceptions last season, but he downplayed that prospect in favor of bigger goals.

“If you don’t put your team goals first, you’re never going to be successful, and that’s how I have always felt,” Kessler said. “It’s definitely humbling, but at the end of the day I want this team to get better. I want us to win as a team and that’s going to be my main goal this season.”

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