Why USC flourishes in early-season showdowns under Pete Carroll
I guess it makes sense that USC is favored by 11 over Ohio State. The Trojans will be at home, the Coliseum off the hook. Mascot-wise, Traveler has the edge on Brutus Buckeye.
And while the Trojans overwhelmed Virginia in their sole outing this season, the Buckeyes were underwhelming against a second-level MAC squad being led by its second-string quarterback last week. Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez looked dangerous, mobile and very much at ease against the Wahoos. And there seems to be some question now -- raised by a certain sweater-vested sphinx, so take it for what it's worth -- whether Beanie Wells will even get on the field.
The makers of these odds have clearly taken the "Stun Factor" into consideration. That's my coinage for the strange spell that settles on USC's early-season, non-conference opponents. It explains why quality teams with terrific athletes come into these September epics looking to make a statement, but end up looking like dynamited fish, belly-up and wondering what concussive force just rocked their world in yet another Trojans rout.
A brief history of the Stun Factor: In 2003, the Trojans dispensed with Auburn, BYU and Hawaii by the combined score of 109-50. A year later, Virginia Tech, Colorado State and BYU were outscored by the men of Troy, 115-23.
And then things got really ugly for 'SC's early-season cultural-exchange partners. Recall the Leinart, Bush and White-led vivisections of Hawaii (63-17) and Arkansas (70-17) in '05. So morale-killing was the latter beatdown that it was likened by Reggie Herring, then the Razorbacks' defensive coordinator, to "having your dog run over, your wife left you and your house burned down." So when the Trojans hung only half a hundred on Herring & Co. the following season, Arkansas' sports infomation office celebrated the "vast improvement" of the defense, which had yielded a stingy 472 total yards (down from 736!). If only Arkansas had played the Trojans a couple more times, the Hogs would've held them to negative yardage!
How does the Stun Factor Work? It's not that complicated. USC dominates games against top-tier non-conference foes because it has the cojones to schedule them in the first place. "To conquer without risk," wrote the French tragedian Pierre Corneille, "is to triumph without glory." It is, in other words to play out the '08 nonconference schedule of Auburn (Louisiana-Monroe, Southern Miss and Tennessee-Martin), or LSU (App. State, North Texas, Tulane and Troy), or Texas Tech (Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and UMass).
Yes, Carroll and his assistants are top-notch recruiters. But, as teams like Tennessee demonstrate year after year, there's a difference between being loaded and being really good. When everything is firing for Carroll's Trojans -- when they're scoring four TDs in eighth plays over the course of 92 seconds against Arkansas; or putting the wood to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl or spanking Michigan or Illinois in the Rose Bowl -- they are better than the sum of their impressive parts. Which is no accident.
Dating back to his days as a grad student at University of the Pacific (when he would drive from Stockton to L.A. to visit his future wife while reading Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism flat on the dashboard), Carroll has steeped himself in something called the Human Potential Movement.
He discussed neither Trungpa nor the Movement, we can safely assume, on the 1979 afternoon when, during his one season as an assistant at Ohio State, he spied Woody Hayes from his cubicle in St. John's Arena. Hustling after the legend, Carroll introduced himself. They walked and talked for 10 minutes. "I was all thrilled," Carroll recalled this week. "He even knew that I was one of the new coaches. We talked football. That was my one chance I had to visit with him."