LOS ANGELES -- When Jim Harbaugh's charismatic quarterbacking carried the Indianapolis Colts on a Cinderella playoff run in 1995, he earned the nickname Captain Comeback.
On the USC campus right now they might be calling him Captain Crackback.
For the second time this year, the new Stanford coach has said something about the Trojans that was spit-out-your-coffee startling.
In the spring, Harbaugh declared that USC coach Pete Carroll would only be at the school for one more year, information he said he gathered from someone on the Trojans' staff. You can imagine how well that went over at Troy, given the potential recruiting damage.
"If he's going to make statements like that, he ought to get his information right," Carroll told the Los Angeles Times at the time. "And if he has any questions about it, he should call me."
Then, on Thursday at his first Pacific-10 football media day, Harbaugh sent a jolt through a sleepy room of sports writers by declaring that this USC team "may be the best team in the history of college football."
Figuring that perhaps Harbaugh had confused the current USC team with the Matt Leinart-Reggie Bush 2004 unit that went 13-0 and seal-clubbed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, he was asked if he meant what he said.
Harbaugh repeated the statement.
"They may be the best team in the history of college football. My opinion."
Given one more chance at clarifying, backtracking or otherwise softening that opinion, Harbaugh stood in the pocket and delivered a third time.
"I think their current team is that good," he said.
Since there wasn't enough time to check Harbaugh's concussion history before Carroll came into the room, we had to assume the Cardinal coach was of sound mind at the podium. Naturally, I couldn't wait to ask Carroll what he thought of the latest from his new nemesis up the coast -- because if there's one thing coaches hate more than fumbles in the red zone, it's hyperbolic praise from the opposition.
"Gotta love Jim, don't you?" Carroll chirped, making it rather clear how little he loves Jim. "I'm glad he thinks that."
Do you think it, Pete?
"There's no way I'd ever try to understand what that's about. … Thanks, Jim," Carroll responded.
It is hard to understand what that's about. The guess here is that the refreshingly brash Harbaugh is showing his players and Stanford fans that he's not afraid to poke a stick at the beast of the Pac-10 -- to build USC up in order to one day tear it down.
Just don't expect that day to occur in 2007. In fact, when the Cardinal visit USC on Oct. 6, expect Carroll to do his best to put an Arena League number on his side of the Memorial Coliseum scoreboard. He's never been known for tender mercy when playing with a big lead, and now he has even less reason to do it against Stanford.
So we have a fresh coaching rivalry to keep an eye on out West -- the new underdog vs. the entrenched big dog. But truth be told, Harbaugh was hardly the only Pac-10 coach godding up the Trojans Thursday.
Bill Doba, Washington State: "I think SC has to beat themselves, to be honest about it. … [Carroll] just has to guard against overconfidence, or not being prepared, or really, really, really bad luck."
Dennis Erickson, newly arrived at Arizona State after a stint with the San Francisco 49ers: "You want my evaluation of USC? They should be in that league I was so successful in, the National Football League."
With perspective thrown completely out the window, it was time to visit the lunch table occupied by UCLA coach Karl Dorrell and Bruins defensive end Bruce Davis. When told of Harbaugh's greatest team ever comments, Davis literally dropped his fork, sending it clanging against his salad plate.
Dorrell, as is his buttoned-down custom, wouldn't go there. Fork back in hand, Davis tried not to go there, either, but he couldn't help it when the subject was raised again a few minutes later. The UCLA players have spent their careers hearing how great their crosstown rival is, and even upsetting the Trojans last season obviously hasn't quelled the hype.
"Let me think about how I want to answer this," he said, rubbing his brow before plunging in. "If they would've won every game they played for as long as Pete Carroll had been there, maybe they could humor that. Maybe.
"I think that's part of the arrogance that comes with USC. They've earned that, but are they the best college football team ever? No. What about the great Oklahoma teams, the Miamis, the Florida States? … They have no right to do that, and I think that's disrespectful to the history of college football.
"If people want to say they're the greatest, yeah, that's fine. But what does that make us, if we beat the best college football team ever?"
It makes the Bruins, with 20 returning starters, the third choice in the league's preseason media poll. California is second. USC got all 39 first-place votes -- not a surprise, given the fact that just about every magazine in the country has picked the Trojans No. 1 nationally.
At the opposite end of the predictions is Stanford, picked to finish dead last for the second consecutive season. But Harbaugh sure wasn't offering any last-place rhetoric Thursday.
"We will work like dogs and have fun doing it," he vowed. "We will enjoy the struggle."
Except, perhaps, on Oct. 6. The alleged greatest team in college football history will do its best to make that an unenjoyable struggle for Captain Crackback.
Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.