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Can USC pull it off?

Carroll, Trojans staying cool as three-peat run awaits

Posted: Tuesday August 23, 2005 12:13PM; Updated: Tuesday August 23, 2005 1:47PM
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Pete Carroll
USC's Pete Carroll (left) may not have the passing skills of QB Matt Leinart (right), but the coach is a mean "football golfer."
Peter Read Miller/SI
Going Where No Team's Gone Before
USC is the seventh team to win consecutive AP national titles since the poll started in 1936. How the previous six fared the following season:
Team Year Record Rank
Minnesota 1942 5-4 19
Army 1946 9-0-1 2
Notre Dame 1948 9-0-1 2
Alabama 1966 11-0 3
Oklahoma 1976 9-2-1 5
Nebraska 1996 11-2 6

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LOS ANGELES -- On a late afternoon in early August, USC head coach Pete Carroll -- a man whose program has become the focal point of the entire college football world, whose team is not just predicted, but expected, to do something no other team in the history of the sport has accomplished -- seems about as stressed as a Club Med vacationer.

Having just led his team through a lightning-paced, two-hour practice -- its second of the day -- under a relentless sun, the endlessly energetic 53-year-old is consumed by a frantic game of "football golf." Like a pack of kids ignoring their mother's pleas to come in for dinner, Carroll and his two main offensive assistants, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, race around USC's Howard Jones practice field pointing at potential targets (the goal posts, a set of tackling dummies behind the end zone, a trash can along the sideline) and uncork their best throws while a small group of beat reporters, having watched this routine before, wait impatiently for them to finish. One can only imagine this is not the way Lloyd Carr, Jim Tressel or Phillip Fulmer end their work days (though we can't be sure because, unlike USC, most other teams don't open their practices to pretty much anyone who wants to watch).

Such tomfoolery isn't necessarily a sign that Carroll and his staff aren't taking the task at hand seriously. It's simply the way they've operated since the one-time failed NFL head coach found new life here five years ago, and no amount of staff turnover or media scrutiny can change that. "What we did last year -- that was cool, that was fun. We made a great DVD," said Carroll. "But that's behind us. This is a whole new challenge, just as it was last year and the year before."

An aura of invincibility

This year's challenge happens to be among the most daunting any team in any sport has ever undertaken. No college football team has ever won three straight Associated Press national titles -- never mind attempting to do so during the era of scholarship limits, or after losing the most renowned offensive coordinator in the country (Norm Chow), three other assistant coaches and four All-America defenders.

And yet, based on the early returns -- USC received nearly 95 percent of the possible first-place votes in the preseason AP and Coaches' polls -- the college football public seems to harbor little doubt about the Trojans' chances. Now that Carroll's staff seemingly picks and chooses its share of the nation's top recruits each season (USC's past four classes were ranked No. 8, No. 1, No. 1 and No. 3 by SuperPrep), it's presumed, and rightfully so, that the Trojans are hoarding the greatest collection of talent since Miami's historic run earlier this decade.

Asked about the national perception that the 2005 Trojans will be some sort of unstoppable force capable of scoring 40-50 points every game, '04 Heisman finalist Reggie Bush said, "I agree with that. With the amount of talent we have on this team, I don't see anybody that should be able to stop us this year."

Seconds later, however, Bush scoffs at those who think the season will be easy for USC. "It's not the amount of talent you have," said the running back/receiver/return man. "It's the way you're able to get all that talent playing together as one. You can have all the talent in the world and still not do anything. The Lakers two years ago had tons of talent, and they still didn't win [a championship]. The national perception is it's going to be easy for us, but it's not. It's going to be tough."