Nation's love affair with Trojans now appears to have hit the rocks
Pete Carroll, a playoff advocate, has been outspoken of late about the BCS
Carroll's Trojans are 9-1 but still sit a distant sixth in the BCS standings
Media darlings for much of the decade, USC is flying under the radar this year
USC coach Pete Carroll is perplexed. For the fifth time in six seasons, his team has won nine of its first 10 games, yet this time the Trojans seem to have little chance of playing for the BCS championship.
In 2004 and '05, USC was undefeated and ranked first in the country at this point. In 2003 and '06, they were the highest-ranked one-loss team in the BCS standings.
But this year, with just three weekends of regular-season action remaining, the 9-1 Trojans sit a distant sixth in the BCS standings. They've actually managed to fall a spot since the season's first standings release on Oct. 19, despite the fact they've won seven-straight games.
Carroll, a longtime playoff advocate, has been unusually outspoken in his frustration of late. He made waves a few weeks ago by saying the BCS "stinks." (He's hardly in the minority there.) But the USC coach got particularly defensive following a 17-3 win over Cal on Nov. 8 when reporters questioned his team's inability to accrue "style points" in the low-scoring game.
"I don't care about impressing anybody," he said. "I don't want to win a popularity contest."
Excuse me? Pete Carroll bemoaning college football's unofficial "popularity" contest? That's like the prettiest girl in school saying she doesn't want to win prom queen based on her looks.
No program in the country has received more swooning over the past six years than USC.
In 2002, USC's breakthrough year under Carroll, the 11-2 Trojans won their last eight games, prompting many fans and media to proclaim them "the best team in the country right now." Never mind the fact that year's national champion, Ohio State, had gone 14-0.
In 2003, AP voters were enamored enough with the 12-1 Trojans to proclaim them national champions, despite the fact they did not play in the BCS National Championship Game.
In 2005, ESPN devoted a special series leading up to that year's title game debating whether 12-0 USC was the greatest team of the past 50 years. This was right before USC went out and lost to Texas.
In 2006, USC suffered its first regular-season loss in three years, 33-31 at Oregon State, and dropped from No. 3 to No. 8 in the BCS . Within two weeks, they were back up to No. 3 and would have played Ohio State for the title before losing to 6-5 UCLA.
In 2007, the Trojans lost not once, but twice -- including to 41-point underdog Stanford -- yet when SI.com held a "Virtual Playoff" in December, the readers voted USC the projected champ.
Finally, at the start of this season, the Trojans leapt from No. 3 to No. 1 in the polls on the strength of a 52-7 opening-week rout of Virginia. Following their 35-3 rout of Ohio State, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote: "You can stop debating the identity of the best team of the coach Pete Carroll era, because, in four months, everyone will agree. This will be it."
Twelve days later, USC lost at Oregon State again. This time, for whatever reason, the prom queen's once-adoring friends couldn't run to the exits fast enough.
The Trojans, media darlings for the bulk of this decade, find themselves in the unusual predicament of flying below the radar. Only one of their past five games has been picked up by ABC, and they rarely come up in discussions about the various BCS championship scenarios.
As of now, they're getting boxed out of the title game by a monopoly of Big 12 (Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma) and SEC (Alabama and Florida) teams above them. Adding insult to injury, they may get squeezed out of the Rose Bowl, too, by their tormentors from Corvallis, now 7-3.
And everybody seems to be pretty much fine with this -- even their fans.
"The Oregon State loss kind of created this hangover that hasn't gone away," said Ryan Abraham, publisher of the fan site USCFootball.com. "The fans still look out at the national landscape and try to figure out a way where they can go to the national championship [game], but there's not as much complaining [about the Trojans' ranking]. Everyone kind of realizes, all we had to do was beat Oregon State and we wouldn't have these issues."
USC's plight stems from far deeper than just that one game in Corvallis. If that were the case, fans and pundits would rightly point out that 9-1 Florida, currently ranked two spots above the Trojans, suffered a more damning defeat just two days later, losing at home to Ole Miss (currently 6-4).