Thursday, October 1, 2009

Fall of Troy? Not So Fast

Pete Carroll's motto is "Win Forever." And by and large, that's what he has done at USC since becoming the head coach in 2001.

After starting 1-4 in his career at Troy, Carroll has laid waste to the college football landscape. Since 2002, the Trojans have gone 83-10. The 10 games they did lose were by a combined total of 39 points (by comparison, Cal lost to Oregon by 39 points just last week). During that span, each game USC lost was by seven or fewer points. In fact, the largest margin of defeat in the Carroll era was 11, a 27-16 loss at Notre Dame in his rookie season. Pete has made amends by not allowing the Irish to beat the Trojans since.

But it looks as if USC is at a crossroads. Coming into this Saturday's game at Cal, the Trojans are vulnerable. They may be ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll, but they have struggled offensively with a freshman quarterback. And just this week, they lost running back Stefon Johnson after a freak and near-catastrophic weight room accident.

A loss to Cal might put a temporary end to Win Forever. Consider this: Since Oct. 20, 2002, the Trojans have never ranked lower than No. 13 in the AP Poll. They finished in the top four in each of the last seven final AP rankings. Both of those trends probably would end if they can't emerge victorious in Strawberry Canyon.

But as someone who's written off Carroll's Trojans prematurely in the past, the Guru isn't going to make that mistake again. Every time when they seemed on the verge of becoming mortal, they have bounced back to finish the season with a flourish. Cal, conversely, after handing USC its only loss in 2003, has folded against the Trojans in the past five meetings.

For the Golden Bears, who have not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1959 game, this season represents their latest best chance to get to Pasadena. The dream of a national championship is dead - thanks to the 42-3 beating in Eugene last week - but the hopes of winning the Pac-10 is very much alive. And this will be Cal's best shot for a good while.

Win or lose on Saturday, USC will be a top national title contender and the prohibitive favorite to win the Pac-10 in 2010. So if the Bears don't knock them off this time, the Trojans just might keep on winning ... forever.

★★★★★ GAME OF THE WEEK: USC at Cal, 8 p.m. ET. For the second week in a row, the Bears will play in the game with the top billing. If they lay another egg as they did last week, then they won't return to this space until at least the 2010 season.

★★★★ FOUR-STAR GAME: Oklahoma at Miami (Fla.), 8 p.m. ET. Much bloom has come off this rose after Miami was manhandled by Virginia Tech last week. With Sam Bradford still out for Oklahoma, this will be Landry Jones' first start against a BCS caliber team. OU has a realistic chance of getting back into the BCS title picture, but it must start with a win in Miami.

★★★ THREE-STAR GAME: LSU at Georgia, 3:30 p.m. ET. The Bayou Tigers needed all their moxie, and a little luck, to get out of Starkville unscathed. But a similar performance will end with a loss between the hedges. This is the start of a three-game monster stretch for LSU that also includes games against top-ranked Florida and unbeaten Auburn.

★★ TWO-STAR GAME: Michigan at Michigan State, noon ET. The Big Brother is back just in time to step on the throat of the Little Brother once again. After a season in purgatory, Michigan struts into East Lansing with a 4-0 record and improbably, the Big Ten championship in sight. After choking against Central Michigan and Notre Dame, the 1-3 Spartans are headed toward another season of ... Sparty, No!

★ ONE-STAR GAME: Auburn at Tennessee, 7:45 p.m. ET. While Lane Kiffin is making all the news, the only unbeaten rookie coach in the SEC is Auburn's Gene Chizik, a somewhat controversial choice (just ask Charles Barkley) to replace Tommy Tuberville. While Kiffin is busy counting moral victories, Chizik has picked up four real ones against pretty decent competition.

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