Monday, October 08, 2007


It might be time to revise my expectations for USC football - for this season, obviously, but maybe also for the program itself. The last time I went through such a transition was in 2003 when the Trojans followed an outstanding season (11-2, Orange Bowl victory over Iowa, Carson Palmer’s Heisman) with a national championship. I started to believe that BCS bowl berths would be commonplace and national championships not infrequent.

Trojan fans have been spoiled by an unprecedented level of success over the last five years or so. We have come to expect that kind of success every year, and we have been lulled into believing that Pete Carroll has installed a system at USC that will perpetuate this success as long as Carroll remains the head coach. However, the loss to Stanford raises serious questions about this perception. Is USC returning to a more normal state for modern college football programs? Was this game the continuation of a negative trend that started with the 2006 Rose Bowl (Texas 41 – USC 38 if anyone needs a reminder), a trend characterized by losing to three unranked Pac-10 teams in less than a year, a trend in which last year’s dominating Rose Bowl victory over Michigan is an anomalous blip? Or, is USC football still on an elevated plateau with the loss to Stanford as a rare exception? I hope for the latter, but I fear the former.

The fact is there is no objective evidence this year’s team is any better than average, even though they have more talent than any other team in the country. USC has beaten four teams with a combined record of 9-14 (Idaho is 1-5; Nebraska is 4-2, barely beat Ball St., and got blown out by Missouri; Washington St. is 2-4; and Washington is 2-3) and lost to Stanford with its 2-3 record. It is unreasonable to expect the Trojans to never lose. It is not unreasonable, however, to expect the Trojans never to lose at home against a team the caliber of Stanford.

Carroll and the rest of the USC coaching staff have received excessive praise for reviving a slumbering program and building it into the dominant program of the decade. It was deserved. However, the fire and intensity with which Trojan teams customarily played during their amazing four-year run from 2002-2005 has only been evident sporadically since then. The extreme listlessness and total lack of intensity the Trojans displayed last Saturday against Stanford is impossible for me to fathom. Has all the success in the recent past led to arrogance and complacency on the coaching staff? It has sure looked that way lately. Hopefully, this loss is just what the team needed to prompt some recalibration of its own.

It’s time for the coaches to really earn their pay. Yes, Carroll is a recruiting fiend, but if this game proves anything, it’s that vastly superior talent does not guarantee wins. Apparently the Washington game wasn’t enough proof for the players that they have to do more than just show up to win, and for the coaches that they have to take every opponent seriously. Carroll has not had a Trojan team in this situation before. This team could feasibly self-destruct and limp through the rest of the season with 4 or 5 more losses (if Stanford can beat USC at home, then anybody can beat them). This team, players and coaches, needs to use this loss as a wake-up call to reevaluate, refocus, and rededicate to playing and coaching football like Trojan fans have come to expect. If that doesn’t happen, I will start having doubts about the health of the USC football program. Which will it be? Prove that the Stanford game was a fluke and USC still sets the bar for college football excellence!

However the rest of the season goes, it just got a lot more interesting, and I’ll be watching just as closely and enthusiastically as ever.

Fight On!