Friday, January 25, 2008

It Was Fun While It Lasted

This is what I wrote and intended to post under the heading "It Was Fun While It Lasted" after USC's last loss to Oregon on October 27:

First of all, USC can still finish 10-2 and go to a BCS bowl, so there's plenty to play for. Although the Trojans lost to Oregon last Saturday, their play demonstrated that USC can beat anybody if they eliminate costly mistakes such as red-zone turnovers and big penalties. That includes Oregon State, Cal, Arizona State, and UCLA, the four remaining teams on USC's schedule.

Nevertheless, the Trojans five-year reign over the Pac-10 has unfortunately come to an end. After last Saturday, there is no longer any question that the Trojans have descended from their perch as the dominant program in college football to being merely a 'good' team. As fans, it hurts so much because we know how it feels to be at the top.

At a time like this, it is critical to maintain perspective. As disappointed as we all are right now, we are seven years removed from the darkest days of USC football, before Pete Carroll arrived to lead the Trojans back from irrelevance and mediocrity. The program is incomparably stronger than it was in 2000. USC has not lost its potential to be a great team and there is no reason to believe USC will not continue to compete for Pac-10 and national championships every year.

I don't remember why I didn't follow through with the post (I probably determined it was excessively negative), but having not deleted the draft provides insight into my thinking at the low point of the 2007 season. Clearly, I jumped the gun in giving up on the Pac-10 title and overreacted regarding the Trojans' status in college football. However, until Oregon lost Dennis Dixon, it looked like the Ducks were going to roll through the rest of the conference and into the BCS National Championship Game, where they would have been this year's selection to beat up an over-matched Ohio State team, instead of LSU. So, USC probably owes its sixth consecutive Pac-10 title to Oregon's misfortune (as does LSU its BCS title). Of course, the Trojans had more than their fair share of injuries to overcome.

My thinking was on the mark in other aspects, including my assessment of the team's chances against the remainder of their schedule. Happily, the team also believed there was still plenty to play for, regrouped, and finished the season impressively. Consequently, the 2007 season was "successful", based on my arbitrarily-defined criteria, and the Trojans appear poised to again contend for the national championship in 2008, just as I predicted.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Classy Bruins

Here's an interesting bit of news from Scott Wolf about UCLA's "elegant" handling of the basketball rivalry.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Can Slick Rick Deliver?

The impression I have, based on some Rick Neuheisel statements since he was hired as UCLA's new football coach, is that he is establishing a definition of success for his tenure that is based on UCLA's future performance in relation to USC. I don't mean just UCLA's head-to-head record against USC, but also an ability to win championships and bowl games at a rate comparable to USC. Neuheisel's statements include his televised interview from the stands as a spectator at the Rose Bowl game and his recorded telephone message to UCLA supporters, in which he said, “The team across town has risen to national prominence, and it’s time we meet this head on.”

I respect this approach, but is he setting up himself and his program to fail? My guess is UCLA fans expect to beat the Trojans about as often as they lose to them. Is that a realistic expectation right now? In the past quarter century, USC is 12-12-1 against UCLA, but that includes an eight-game losing streak during the 1990s, pre-Carroll. With Pete Carroll at the helm, the Trojans climbed the college football mountain and have performed at an elite, unprecedentedly consistent level – the 2008 Rose Bowl championship gives the Trojans a 5-1 record over six consecutive BCS bowl appearances. In the same period of time, UCLA has compiled a 43-33 (28-22 Pac-10) record including a 2-4 record in bowl games, none of which were played on or after New Year’s Day.

I don’t expect the Trojans to beat UCLA every year in perpetuity (I can live with one loss out of nine!), but Neuheisel is sowing the seeds of disappointment unless he can engineer a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of both programs. If he cannot, his performance will not compare favorably against the bar he is setting, and he may not last long in what is probably his last chance as a head coach in the college game.