LOS ANGELES -- For the past five years, residents of this city had a custom-made retort when anyone asked if they missed the NFL. "We have a NFL team," they could easily respond. "It just plays on Saturdays."
USC, after all, populated the NFL with its alumni. The Trojans treated the draft like an annual graduation party. They went straight from Rose Bowls to Pro Bowls.
Around college football, USC's air of invincibility might have evaporated Saturday night, when 40-point underdog Stanford staggered into the Coliseum with a backup quarterback and beat the Trojans in an upset of
But around the NFL, the air has been gone for quite a while. USC products, once the surest of things, have looked more like projects recently. Not to beat Traveler when he is down, but here are the most celebrated Trojans to turn pro in the past two years:
New Orleans running back
Tennessee running back
St. Louis tight end
New York Giants receiver
Of course, some of this can be attributed to bad luck, bad timing and bad situations. It is unfair to pass judgment so early in a player's career. Jarrett and Smith are just rookies. Leinart and Bush are too talented not to rebound. White can lose the weight.
But USC players, at least the high-end ones, did not used to require this much work. They came out of the dorms NFL-ready. Cincinnati drafted quarterback
For NFL general managers, it was easy. Draft the best player available, so long as he went to USC. The strategy worked as recently as 2005, when Philadelphia took defensive tackle
But there was one annoying exception to the Trojan rule.
Coincidence or not, after Williams flopped, a handful of Trojans took unexpected falls down the draft board. Bush dropped from No. 1 to No. 2; Leinart tumbled from the top 5 to No. 10. Justice, White and Jarrett all expected to go in the first round. None did.
At the time, GMs looked as though they had lost their minds. Had they not seen these guys in college, winning almost every game they had played, overwhelming almost every opponent they had faced? Apparently, the GMs had also seen something else.
Mind you, no fewer scouts will be watching USC this season. The Trojans have four potential first-round picks -- offensive tackle
There is a chance that USC's three starting linebackers -- Rivers, junior
USC remains among the best incubators of NFL talent, no matter where the Trojans finish in the BCS rankings. But players who leave USC are not immune to the problems and challenges that confront players who leave any other elite college program.
As Stanford showed, the Trojans are no longer sure things.