Commentary

Trojans look like nation's best with no one left to play

Updated: January 2, 2008, 9:02 AM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. -- Southern California coach Pete Carroll sat in front of dozens of media members Tuesday night, less than an hour after his No. 7 Trojans had dismantled No. 13 Illinois 49-17 in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianPete Carroll would love a chance to continue playing this season, but he's not about to lobby for USC's credibility.

It didn't take long for the obvious question to be asked: After winning its fifth consecutive game in dominant fashion, was USC the best team in college football?

"The last thing I'd want to do is sit up here and lobby for some recognition for our season," Carroll said. "We did everything we could with what we had."

Carroll didn't need to lobby. His team's performance in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi said more than enough. What the Trojans' domination of the Illini showed was that USC has a lot more than everyone else when it has everything at its disposal.

The No. 7 Trojans are better than both No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 LSU, which will play for the BCS championship Monday night in the Louisiana Superdome. The Buckeyes couldn't even beat No. 13 Illinois, which was so clearly overmatched by USC. It's a shame the Trojans can't play the winner of the BCS title game in two weeks.

"I would love to play one more," USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. "I don't think any team in the NCAA could beat us right now. Not Ohio State, not LSU."

With a stunning home loss to a 41-point underdog on its résumé, USC wasn't the most deserving team to play for the national championship. But the Trojans sure look like the best team in college football.

"It's hard to say what would happen," USC offensive tackle Sam Baker said, when asked how the Trojans would stack up against the Buckeyes or Tigers. "You can't really do that. You can't say Illinois beat Ohio State and we beat Illinois. That's not how football works. I just know this team was peaking at the right time."

No team was peaking higher than the Trojans at season's end. USC's 49 points against Illinois tied a 60-year-old Rose Bowl record, and its 633 yards of offense were the most ever gained in college football's "Granddaddy of Them All." Besides a couple of long runs by Illinois tailback Rashard Mendenhall, the Rose Bowl turned out exactly how most people thought it would be: a lopsided affair.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cushing
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesBrian Cushing thinks his USC team is every bit as good as Ohio State and LSU.

"Personally, I wish were playing on January 7," USC linebacker Brian Cushing said. "It's something we'll never know. Those are two good teams in their own right. But this is a great team. It's a great defense. It's a great offense."

Ask Illinois whether any team is playing better than the Trojans right now. The Illini went 9-3 in the regular season and beat the Buckeyes 28-21 in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 10. They couldn't stay within four touchdowns of USC.

The Trojans never let Illini quarterback Juice Williams get to the perimeter on option plays. Illinois didn't get receiver Arrelious Benn involved in the game until it was too late. Only Mendenhall, who ran for 155 yards and one touchdown and caught five passes for 59 yards, did much damage when it still mattered.

"Obviously, it's not good for us," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "It hurts the Big Ten. I told our football team all along that we're representing the University of Illinois, but also representing the Big Ten Conference. That's why it's important that we play the way we're capable of playing. We didn't do that. So we let the Big Ten down, as well. There's no doubt in my mind the Big Ten Conference can compete with anybody. I can say that, but we have to do it."

None of the Big Ten's best teams, including Ohio State, could compete with USC right now. After the Trojans erupted for three touchdowns in a six-minute span in the second half to turn a relatively close game into a rout, it was clear the Illini were simply outclassed. USC led 21-0 late in the first half. After Illinois got as close as 21-10 and was driving for another score, the Trojans buried the Illini with an onslaught of defensive and offensive explosions.

"This is exactly how we pictured these guys being," Carroll said.

USC was supposed to be playing for the national championship, at least that's what most experts believed when the season began. The Trojans were a popular choice for No. 1 in the preseason, and Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh even proclaimed USC the greatest team of all time.

But then Stanford stunned USC 24-23 on Oct. 6 in one of college football's biggest upsets. Trojans quarterback John David Booty played that game with a broken middle finger on his throwing hand, throwing four interceptions against the Cardinal.

Three weeks later, with Booty still sidelined because of the finger injury, Oregon beat USC 24-17 in Eugene.

No one has truly come close to beating the Trojans since. While many pundits proclaimed the end of the USC dynasty (including this humbled scribe), the Trojans actually were just getting started. They beat Oregon State by three touchdowns and California by seven points. USC won at Arizona State by 20, then beat up UCLA, which had stunned the Trojans in the finale a year ago.

"Everything that was out there for us, we took," Carroll said. "The rest of it is up for discussion. But would I love to still be playing right now? Sure would. We'd go out there any time, any place, any venue and throw our football out there and see what we could do."

LSU and Ohio State are lucky the Trojans are done playing.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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