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Posted: Sunday November 1, 2009 11:57PM; Updated: Wednesday November 4, 2009 11:57AM
Stewart Mandel

Ducks make a statement, but how high can they fly?

Story Highlights

Watching the rejuvenated Ducks so thoroughly dismantle the Trojans was surreal

In hindsight, warning signs regarding USC's defense clearly existed

Most voters are unable to rank Oregon over an unbeaten Boise State team

LaMichael James and the Oregon offense rang up 613 yards in a rout of USC on Saturday.
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EUGENE, Ore. -- We all know that, though preseason polls are inherently arbitrary, they carry great weight over the course of a season. Following their respective blowout victories Saturday, No. 1 Florida (which dismantled Georgia) and No. 3 Texas (which hammered Oklahoma State) remain on course for a potential BCS Championship collision, but the reason they -- as opposed to, say, Iowa and Cincinnati -- occupy the driver's seat stems primarily from the fact that they started there.

It was for much the same reason that USC, despite an early-season loss at Washington, managed to rise back up to No. 4 in the polls prior to Saturday night's unmasking at Oregon. The Trojans' string of seven straight 11-win seasons has earned them considerable leeway with voters. Any other program in the country that lost a top five pick at quarterback, 10 defensive starters and both coordinators would not possibly have earned a preseason top five ranking. Voters would have penciled it in for a "rebuilding season." But no previous amount of staff or personnel turnover had ever steered Pete Carroll's teams off course.

Until now.

For those of us in the press box at Autzen Stadium on Saturday, watching the rejuvenated Ducks so thoroughly dismantle the Trojans, 47-20, was certifiably surreal. Quite frankly, we'd never seen such a thing. USC hadn't lost by as much as 11 points since Carroll's first season in 2001. Since 2002, none of the Trojans' 10 losses had come by more than a touchdown. And no team had come remotely close to running up 391 rushing yards and 613 total yards against a Carroll-coached defense.

The Trojans seemed equally stunned.

"Before this season I never thought this could happen," said freshman quarterback Matt Barkley.

"You never expect something like that," said Carroll.

In hindsight, warning signs clearly existed. USC's defense, which tricked many of us into believing it had managed to reload yet again by delivering dominant early-season performances against Ohio State and Cal, had allowed 36 points and 482 yards the week before against Oregon State and three second-half touchdowns the week before that at Notre Dame.

But while plenty of fans and pundits picked the Ducks to win Saturday (regrettably, I was not one of them), most assumed it would be on the strength of Oregon's defense. Raise your hand if you envisioned Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James gashing the Trojans' defense as if it were an overmatched cellar-dweller.

"You could see the potential we played with at the beginning of the season," said USC safety Taylor Mays. "We've seen that we can be dominant, but that we're not dominant all the time."

Mays may well be the most frustrated Trojan of all. He could be making millions right in the NFL, but he returned for his senior season because he believed USC would make another championship run. Instead, he's now the most recognizable face on Carroll's worst defense. Mays and the Trojans were counting on a bevy of talented but unproven players to not only carry the torch for the defense, but possibly carry USC's offense as it broke in a new quarterback (and that was before injuries decimated the Trojans' running back and receiving corps). It hasn't happened.

While Oregon all but assured USC's string of seven straight Pac-10 championships is over (the Trojans would need the red-hot Ducks to inexplicably lose at least two of their last four), there's still ample opportunity for USC to finish with a typically USC-like record. Win out against Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona (the last three all at home), and the Trojans will be 10-2 and likely returning to a BCS bowl with a chance to notch their eighth straight 11-win season.

In his postgame remarks, Carroll made comparisons to USC's last trip to Oregon two years ago, a 24-17 defeat that also left the Trojans with two losses and seemingly down for the count. "We went about our business and got back on the right track," he said. "That's what we're focused on right now."

But Saturday night's massacre was an entirely different type of event, and not just because the '07 loss only put USC one game back in the standings. All sorts of widely held perceptions about the Trojans that had proven true for seven years -- that Carroll's teams always reload, that they always rise up for big games, that they always play stingy run defense -- were obliterated on the aptly dubbed "Fright Night" in Eugene.

It's not that the USC program suddenly finds itself in shambles. Plenty of teams would kill to deal with the kind of "crisis" currently facing the 6-2 Trojans, who, while clearly beset by flaws on both sides of the ball, are still plenty talented. ("They were big, fast and strong," said Oregon's James. "A typical 'SC defense.") Even if the Trojans suffer another setback or two and wind up taking an uncharacteristic holiday trip to San Diego or El Paso, USC's future remains plenty bright.

But the fact that someone finally rendered the Trojans mortal -- fully capable of a drop-off just like nearly every other team in the country -- means the unparalleled leash media and poll voters have long held for them may not be there in the future. Washington-type losses won't be so easily dismissed. Top five rankings won't be considered a birthright.

USC will have to earn back its previously unmatched level of respect. Since that quest begins next week, I wouldn't want to be Arizona State.

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