Will 2009 see the fall of Troy?
Rest of Pac-10 looks to unseat USC and gain respect in the process
LOS ANGELES -- This story will be a USC-free zone.
And by that we mean no USC coaches or players will comment on the Trojans' seven-year run atop the Pac-10. They will not be able to talk with false humility through knowing smirks about their 82-9 record, two national championships and seven-year stretch ranked among the nation's top five at season's end.
Instead, the other nine members of the Pac-10 will get to talk about -- and be annoyed with -- USC's dominance, which has inspired dismissive references to the conference as the "Pac-1" and the "Lack-Nine" among fans from other regions.
"I think it's a horrible thing!" said Rick Neuheisel, clearly amused that the UCLA coach -- and a former Bruins quarterback -- is being asked about whether the Trojans' run of super-wonderfulness hurts the Pac-10's overall perception.
"But give credit where credit is due. They've gotten it done. Somebody has to get strong enough to knock them off the perch."
There is a defensiveness among the other nine programs. They sometimes seem to suggest they'd be open to the other BCS leagues' borrowing the Trojans for a season -- or two -- and, you know, seeing what happens.
Pac-10 coaches are always quick point to USC's record in and out of conference.
Of those nine defeats since 2002, only two came against nonconference foes, one of which was versus Texas in the 2005 national championship game. When the Trojans have ventured down South or into the heartland or played in bowl games, they have almost always delivered epic whippings, starting in 2003 with a 23-0 victory over sixth-ranked Auburn in front of 90,000 stunned fans who watched their Tigers gain only 164 yards.
(That game, by the way, largely explains why arguments about Auburn's BCS snub in 2004 gain zero traction on the West Coast).
USC coach Pete Carroll, who won't be telling us he's "pumped" in this story, has repeatedly noted that that his Trojans' toughest games almost always are in-conference.
"When they go outside the conference, they make it look pretty easy against national teams," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "Nobody really wants to give us credit for our ability to match up with them, week in and week out."
Take the past two seasons: USC beat Nebraska 49-31, Notre Dame 38-0, Illinois 49-17, Virginia 52-7, Ohio State 35-3, Notre Dame 38-3 and Penn State 38-24. But the Trojans lost to Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State and beat five other conference foes by 14 points or less.
Yet this doesn't get noticed. That frustrates the other nine coaches, but they also know there's only one way to change things.
"I'd have to say, yes, there is a perception that it's USC and a bunch of others," California coach Jeff Tedford said. "Going 5-0 in bowl games [last year] and looking at our record versus the SEC [10-7 since 2000], we know we have a very strong conference. But I don't think the diversity of champions has been there enough where somebody can be tagged [an elite rival for USC]. Just coming close to winning it -- there's no reward for second place."
Ties don't count either. Three of the Trojans' conference titles -- 2002, 2006 and 2007 -- were co-championships, shared with Washington State, Cal and Arizona State.
"When I was at 'SC, I never mentioned the co-champions. I feel like I want to now," said first-year Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, formerly USC's offensive coordinator.
Sarkisian also pointed out another issue: A second BCS bowl team.
The Pac-10 had two teams selected for BCS bowls in 2000 and 2002 -- and went 3-1 in those games, by the way -- but hasn't had two since.
In 2004, Cal was knocked out of the Rose Bowl when Texas coach Mack Brown successfully lobbied poll voters to manipulate the system. In 2005, sixth-ranked Oregon was overlooked.
Then both the Bears and Ducks played without passion in Holiday Bowl losses, which were subsequently used to fortify the belief that the conference was USC and nine dwarfs.
In 2007, Cal and Oregon both ascended to No. 2 in the national polls, only to implode.
It hasn't always been like this. The Trojans won the Pac-10 in 1995 -- actually, were co-champions with Washington -- and that was the first of a remarkable run of diversity atop the conference, with eight different teams winning or sharing titles through 2001.
Only Cal and Arizona failed to break into the fun.
Did someone mention Cal, which hasn't played in a Rose Bowl since 1959? It's the team most expect to challenge the Trojans for the conference title this season.
The Bears have 17 starters, including Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best, back from a team that won nine games in 2008.
USC, meanwhile, is breaking in a new quarterback and replacing eight starters from one of the best defenses in college football history.
Are the Trojans vulnerable?
"No," Best said.
"I've heard the same thing every year after they lose seven or eight guys to the NFL. Everybody says they're not going to be as good this year. But they come back [every year] and are just as good if not better than the year before. They've proven that no matter how many people leave, they are still going to be one of the best teams in the Pac-10. So we're not counting on them being vulnerable. We're counting on our execution on offense and defense to beat them."
That last part is critical.
Barring NCAA intervention, the Trojans won't fall on their own. They need to be knocked off their perch by force.
Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covers the Pac-10 for ESPN.com's blog network. Send your questions and comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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