- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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They fell one by one as wide-eyed America watched on glowing televisions. First Louisville, then Auburn, Cal and Texas. Florida clawed desperately to avoid the monstrous BCS upheaval.
Meanwhile, as the clock ticked past 2 a.m. ET last Saturday -- well beyond the witching hour -- USC finished devouring the Oregon Ducks, 35-10.
And college football fans across the land, whether bleary-eyed but awake with remote controls in hand or suffering through a restless, haunted sleep, surely could hear a voice not unlike the little girl's from "Poltergeist."
That would be the Men of Troy, owners of a pair of national titles, a runner-up finish last season, four consecutive top-five finishes and 56-5 record since 2002.
USC has remained in the AP Top 10 for 55 consecutive weeks, but the Trojans, despite losing an unparalleled collection of skill players to the NFL and starting just four seniors, don't want to be just costars in 2006. They still want to direct.
That's why folks outside Southern California, many suffering Cardinal & Gold exhaustion, rejoiced when the Trojans were sacked 33-31 at Oregon State on Oct. 28. The upset appeared to dash their national title hopes, which suited fans of the other five BCS conferences just fine.
Yet here they are, a month later, girding up for a showdown with 17th-ranked California, the winner capturing the Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl berth.
At least. A victory would mean the Rose Bowl is the worst USC can do.
When Bloody Saturday concluded, and the computers worked their voodoo Sunday, USC found itself ranked third in the BCS standings, just ahead of Florida.
Assuming the standings' mysterious formula doesn't spit out an Ohio State-Michigan rematch for the Jan. 8 title game in Glendale, Ariz., the Trojans now have the inside track to earn one of the two coveted spots, in large part because their home stretch -- Cal, Notre Dame and UCLA -- is the most demanding among contending teams.
Coach Pete Carroll is an evangelist of living in the moment, of not looking ahead, of not worrying about the BCS. He often claims not to fully understand the system.
But his players do, though they entertain the subject of competing for another national title with some reluctance at this juncture. Still, with a late kickoff last Saturday, and little to do but watch games on TV, they couldn't help but recognize what was happening.
"We did a little bit -- it was somewhat uplifting," receiver Steve Smith said. "It gave us a little more inspiration to go out there and take care of business."
And what did he watch?
"I was watching the Florida game," he said. "I was really hoping Florida would take a loss, but I guess the tight game [a one-point Florida win vs. South Carolina] helped us [in the BCS standings]."
No, these guys aren't thinking about the BCS at all.
Nonetheless, the Trojans have been all about business since imploding at Oregon State. They fell behind in that game 33-10 but promptly went on a 77-0 run over the next seven quarters, a scoreless streak that didn't end until Oregon booted a third quarter field goal.
It was as though USC losing its sixth Pac-10 game in Carroll's six seasons -- three of the losses came his first year -- awakened a sleeping colossus. Perhaps the Trojans needed to be reminded how bad losing felt during the regular season. They hadn't experienced it since Sept. 27, 2003.
"I'm really reluctant to own up to that because I'd rather have the other guys learn the hard way, other than us," Carroll said when reminded that he said as much after the defeat.
"But the fact remains that sometimes the hardest lessons are the strongest and send the best message. I don't know if we needed that message at the time, but I do know we've responded well from it. I hate to think that's what you need but our team has rebounded well. We've played our best football since. It was obviously a changing point for us."
Perhaps California will learn that lesson -- for a second time this season.
The Bears, who had been dominant since imploding at Tennessee to open the season, stepped on a rake at Arizona last Saturday; the 24-20 upset defeat ended their chances to get into the championship mix.
If Cal wins, it will earn its first Rose Bowl berth since the 1958 season. If it loses, its season will be a disappointment.
"They know what's on the line," coach Jeff Tedford said. "Playing this game, it's not something you need to motivate your players to do. It's more the other way around, where you've got to try and back off and keep them a little bit loose."
It's a bit of a role reversal that Cal enters as the explosive, star-studded team, while USC is more smashmouth and gritty.
The Bears feature playmakers such as tailback Marshawn Lynch and DeSean Jackson, while the Trojans are superior on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Cal's offense and special teams are better, but Troy's defense, which is tops in scoring and yards allowed in the conference, owns a decided edge.
"I don't think [mentioning the Rose Bowl] is looking ahead. If we were talking about some other ball game, we would be."
-- USC coach Pete Carroll
"Their defense is nails," Tedford said.
Carroll admitted that he's used the Rose Bowl as motivation this week. That's not a typical motivational tactic for him, but he called the approach "acknowledging the reality of it."
So that's not really looking ahead.
"I don't think [mentioning the Rose Bowl] is looking ahead," he said. "If we were talking about some other ball game, we would be."
Hmmm. What could he possibly mean by "some other ball game"?
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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