After the sudden and startling fall of Troy, what's left for USC?
Lane Kiffin said it best after losing to Washington: "This is not your old SC"
In years past, first loss would have knocked USC from atop poll, not out of it
Decline began before Kiffin took over; he's just trying to prevent a free-fall
Deep into a discussion the other day about USC's struggles this season and last, first-year head coach Lane Kiffin dropped something so obvious as to be profound.
A few days earlier, the Trojans had lost a heartbreaker to Washington -- the second straight year a last-second field goal had given Steve Sarkisian's Huskies an upset over his former team. It was USC's first loss, and though we're not yet halfway through the season, the postmortems have begun.
"This," Kiffin said, "is not your old SC."
No, it isn't. Never mind the Trojans' 4-1 record -- the four wins weren't impressive, and the loss was depressing. For further proof, consider the betting line for Saturday's game. Stanford is favored by more than a touchdown -- some places it's 9 ½ points, others it's double digits -- and no one is quibbling with the oddsmakers.
How far has Troy fallen? In years past, the first loss of the season would have dropped the Trojans from atop the AP poll, not out of it altogether. But again, no one is protesting.
"We have so many things we need to correct," Kiffin said, and there's doubt as to whether the flaws are fixable.
As it fades farther into the past, Pete Carroll's nine-year tenure only looks more remarkable. The seven-year run from 2002-08 produced seven Pac-10 championships, seven BCS bowl appearances and two national championships. It's as dominant as any period in major-college football, at least in the modern era, and for a while, Carroll's "Win Forever" seemed more a statement of fact than a motto.
Of course, any present-day evaluation has to include the stigma now attached to the Reggie Bush era. As much as for Bush's misdeeds, the NCAA dropped the hammer on USC for an overall atmosphere of lax compliance. For many, the entire run is tainted.
But on the field, the results were stunning. Which is why the sudden fall of Troy has been so startling.
Four Pac-10 losses last season, before Carroll bolted town for the Seattle Seahawks. And although the Trojans won their first four games this season, they didn't look like, well -- it was clear times had changed. The Trojans aren't bad, but they're mediocre. This is not your old SC.
What's missing? Playmakers, to start. Matt Barkley's continued development has been encouraging; in a conference filled with passers, he's got the best passing rating, he's the key to a decent offense and he still looks like a franchise quarterback. But there's no franchise around him -- no one remotely resembling, say, Bush.
Remember when USC stockpiled future NFL players, when All-Americas famously fought for their starting position each week? USC's roster does not include a single player who was named first-team all-conference in 2009.
Or second-team, either.
Never mind the talent; the Trojans don't have enough players now to risk much competition. Even before the NCAA's penalties take hold -- unless an appeal succeeds, the Trojans will have 10 fewer scholarships to give for three years -- attrition (transfers, early NFL entries, released signees) has whittled the roster to 69 or 70 players, well under the 85-scholarship limit.
"Good practice for us," Kiffin wryly noted.
Because of the lack of depth, the Trojans apparently haven't had enough good practices. Fearing injury, Kiffin limited physical contact during preseason practices, and now the Trojans can't tackle. There might be a correlation.
Check these defensive stats: USC ranks 116th (of 120) against the pass, 44th against the run, 99th in total defense. The Trojans' defense is a big play waiting to happen, and not in a good way.
"We're not playing as fast as we'd like to," Kiffin said. "We're still in the thinking process of digesting the defense."
But before we heap blame on Kiffin, remember last year, with those four Pac-10 losses -- a couple of times, they were blown out. Recall that Carroll's last game was played inside a baseball stadium in something called the Emerald Bowl (and which is now, deliciously, called the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl). There's room for serious doubt about Kiffin, but the decline had already begun before his arrival. For now, he's simply the guy trying to prevent free-fall.
Sarkisian's Huskies started the descent a year ago with a surprising upset of his former boss. Six weeks later, under the national TV spotlight, Oregon shredded the Trojans. Two weeks after that, Jim Harbaugh's Stanford bunch pounded them into submission, and made them like it.
Harbaugh had been needling Carroll since his arrival at downtrodden Stanford, and he'd pulled off a huge upset two years earlier, but this was something else. Leading by 27 points in the fourth quarter, Harbaugh went for two, which is why when the coaches met at midfield afterward, Carroll asked:
"What's your deal?"
Harbaugh fired back: "What's YOUR deal?"
Stanford's marketing department is now selling the "What's Your Deal" ticket package this season, which includes the USC game. And Kiffin, who's been known to make brash statements every now and then, isn't making any. What's your deal?
"I think with everything being so new here, I think it's irrelevant," he said. "... I don't think it really matters."
What's still astonishing is how USC doesn't matter, nationally. That the Trojans are irrelevant. But Harbaugh's two-point try is not irrelevant.
"We went for it because we thought we could get it," Harbaugh said after the game.
Never mind the hubris, take away this: USC's opponents believe they can do things that were once unthinkable. Many of them expect to. There is no aura of invincibility. The Trojans seem extremely, well, vincible.
Any current power ranking of the Pac-10 starts with Oregon. Arizona and Stanford come next, though we could argue over the order. USC probably fits somewhere into the next group, along with Oregon State, Washington and UCLA.
The league is deep, with plenty of solid, decent squads. Oregon might be elite, though we'll see. Almost everyone else seems pretty good. And everyone remaining on the schedule believes they can beat USC -- and that they should beat USC.
And what do the Trojans think? That's the big question after the loss to Washington. In a back-and-forth game, USC missed what would have been a clinching field goal, then allowed Jake Locker to move the Huskies downfield for Erik Folk's last-second field goal. As the Huskies celebrated on the Coliseum floor, the Trojans trudged up the long, antiquated tunnel.
"A strange feeling," Kiffin called it.
And it could become familiar. Before the season, with no bowl opportunity because of the NCAA sanctions, the Trojans' plan was to win 'em all and force the AP voters to rank them highly -- maybe No. 1. A lofty goal, sure, but in years past, it would have seemed doable. What's left now is to try to finish atop the Pac-10 standings. Or more likely, to spoil someone else's season.
But the most difficult portion of the schedule begins now, and the serious question is whether Kiffin will be able to keep his bunch motivated.
"We don't have a choice," he said, "because [with] the conference being so deep, you have to go get ready to play every week."
It's not all bad. This week, as a big underdog, Kiffin gets to play the no-respect, no-one-believes-you-can-win card. Yes, it's a strange feeling. No, this is not your old SC.
Their era is over. Their aura is long gone. We're about to find out what's left.