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Even after they had been hosed by computer geeks with pocket protectors and leapfrogged in the BCS rankings by LSU, self-pity was not an option for the USC Trojans. At least, not for very long. When word came down that they'd been denied a spot in the Sugar Bowl, the men of Troy had serious grounds for outrage. But instead of bellyaching, they followed the example of their head coach, Pete Carroll, and embraced their destiny. "We get to play for the national championship in a game we want to be in every year," rationalized tackle Shaun Cody. So what if they had to split the title?
By the end of their impressive 28-14 win over Michigan at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, the Trojans seemed less inclined to view themselves as co-champions. "They can have their trophy," shouted defensive end Omar Nazel in the anarchy on the field afterward, dismissing whichever team won the Sugar Bowl. "Everybody knows who the people's champion is."
Students of this, the Early Bird Special national championship game, will focus on USC's nine sacks of Michigan quarterback John Navarre, who'd been taken down just 15 times in the entire regular season. They will point to the blackjack dealer's cool displayed by Navarre's counterpart, Matt Leinart, a sophomore who carved up a very good Wolverines secondary. They'll dwell on the heroics of Trojans senior wide receiver Keary Colbert, whose pair of touchdown catches were, in order, sparkling and sensational.
All those things had plenty to do with USC's victory. At the heart of it all, though, was Carroll. In contrast to grim-faced Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who hauled his team to the coast on Dec. 20 and in classic Big Ten fashion subjected it to three days of two-a-day practices, Carroll darted around his team's practices—one a day was sufficient for the Trojans' coach, whose sessions are open to reporters and players' families—elbowing quarterbacks aside to uncork a few throws during passing drills. When the team was installing a goal line defense earlier this season, says All-America junior defensive end Kenechi Udeze, "I look up and see this aged man flying through the air." It was Carroll, 52 going on 13, doing his best Sam (Bam) Cunningham impersonation. The coach failed to score but didn't fail to impress his players. "I was pretty surprised at how high he jumped," says Udeze.
Despite his age, Carroll holds his own in lunch-hour pickup basketball games with his players, and he isn't out there just for the exercise. Beneath his boyish mien is a give-no-quarter gym rat who plays annoyingly tenacious defense—"Sometimes," says all-cosmos sophomore receiver Mike Williams, "I fear for my health"—and consistently knocks down jumpers from up to 16 feet. In doing so, he sets an example. "He's all about competition," says Colbert. "Every day. It's what he preaches; it's what makes you a better player."
The sense of fun imbuing USC practices coexists with the healthy tension of constant competition, the current on which this program runs. Successive superb recruiting classes have given the Trojans scary depth at nearly every position. Carroll doesn't worry about hurt feelings that may result from battles for playing time; rather, he exults in how they raise everyone's standards. "We're battling so hard out here," said Colbert after one pre- Rose Bowl practice, "that when the game comes around it feels easy."
Colbert's first touchdown sure looked easy. After Michigan's first possession ended with a blocked field goal try, the USC offense took all of 37 seconds to score. Leinart, with a blitzing safety in his face, feathered a perfect 25-yard touchdown pass to Colbert, who'd gotten a step on cornerback Markus Curry. Colbert is a four-year starter who was overshadowed this season by Williams even as he became the Trojans' alltime leading receiver, breaking Kareem Kelly's career mark of 204 catches. Number 205 will go down as his most memorable. Having taken a 14-0 lead into halftime, Southern Cal got the ball to start the second half. On the fifth play of the drive Colbert snagged Leinart's slightly underthrown pass with one hand while fighting off cornerback Jeremy LeSueur—who was flagged for interference—then sprinted for a 47-yard touchdown. Two catches later he finished his career with 207, a mark he predicted "is going to be broken next year by Mike."
Let's follow Colbert's cue and sneak a peek at the future in Troy. In just three years Carroll has recaptured the glory that seemed to be the Trojans' birthright when John McKay and John Robinson strode the Coliseum sideline, winning five national titles between 1962 and '78. While Traveler and Tommy Trojan and the rest of the school's storied football heritage appeal to the parents of today's prep blue chips, that's not why their teenage sons are lining up to come to Southern Cal. They're committing to Carroll because they know they'll contend for a national title, and they know he means it when he tells star recruits, "If you're good enough, you'll play right away."
In 2002 Williams and right offensive tackle Winston Justice were two of 11 true freshmen to log considerable playing time. This season's wunderkinds included starting strong safety Darnell Bing and tailbacks LenDale White and Reggie Bush, of whom one NFL defensive coach said last week, "The kid is Marshall Faulk." One of three holes on the offensive line next year is likely to be filled by Jeff Byers, a 6'4", 285-pound high school senior from Loveland, Colo., who's widely touted as the best high school lineman in the country and who has verbally committed to Southern Cal. In addition to doing a much better job than they used to at recruiting in their own backyard, the Trojans under Carroll have had great success luring recruits from different time zones.
The gold standard for out-of-state talent is Williams, a 6'5", 230-pound Tampa native who had his heart set on playing at Florida until Steve Spurrier left the Gators for the NFL. When Florida State and Miami projected Williams as a tight end, he looked west. He may have been the only person in the country underwhelmed by his 81 catches and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman in '02. "I wasn't really good last year," he says. "Not to be arrogant, but compared to where I am now, I wasn't." Where he is now, after another 95 catches and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore, is shoulder to shoulder with Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald as one of the two best wideouts in the nation.