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End of an era


One of the first jobs I had in journalism was writing and updating obituaries. Not obituaries on dead people, mind you, but on those still living, because, well, you never know. It was a weird, morbid gig, but somebody had to do it.

If I was still working the "graveyard beat," and the USC Trojans were an individual, I'd probably be working on a special commemorative section on their life and times and putting the final touches on their funerary.

It may seem ridiculous to pen an epitaph for one of the best teams in college football and a squad still in the top 10 according to the Coaches' and Harris polls, but this isn't so much about their ability to be a contender -- it's about the aura of invincibility that has surrounded this program for the past five years. Some may say it's on life support at this point, but there's no doubt in my mind it left the hallowed halls of Heritage Hall some time ago.

The Trojans have won 61 of their last 66 games and are 50-4 since losing to Cal in triple overtime four years ago. Gaudy numbers no doubt, but certainly misleading when gauging the current state of the program. Most of those wins were achieved by players and coaches that have long since left the school. A more accurate picture of the team these days shows that they are 6-3 in their last nine conference games, with their last two wins coming by a combined 10 points in games that weren't decided until the final seconds.

When USC plays Notre Dame on Saturday, it will be the first time a Pete Carroll-coached team takes the field not ranked in the AP Poll's top 10 since Oct. 26, 2002. It's appropriate, considering that is the day most coaches point to as the day this program returned to national prominence.

Ranked No. 15 at the time and riding modest two-game winning streak after starting the season 3-2, the Trojans traveled to Eugene to play No. 14 Oregon and trailed 19-14 at the half. An entirely different USC team came out in the second half and scored 30 unanswered points and a juggernaut was born. They went on to be ranked in the AP top 10 for a school-record 63 consecutive games over the course of five years; a period that saw them claim five Pac-10 titles, three Heisman Trophies and two national championships.

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Interestingly enough, the bookend to the Trojans' "Camelot" period wasn't their embarrassing loss to 41-point underdog Stanford, which broke the team's 35-game home winning streak, but their equally uninspired performance last week against Arizona.

Going into the Arizona game, USC was still in the AP top 10 and ranked No. 7 in the Coaches' and Harris polls. Had the Trojans responded like they did after they lost to Oregon State last season (blowing out Stanford 42-0), they might have moved up in the polls like every team above them when LSU and Cal went down last week. They could have been ranked as high as eighth in the AP Poll and sixth in the Coaches' Poll this week and still be in the national championship hunt. Instead they found themselves trailing a 2-5 Arizona team at home in the fourth quarter before winning by a touchdown. As a result they fell to No. 13 in the AP Poll and just barely snuck back into the top 10 of the Coaches' Poll (by the way, have any of these coaches actually watched USC this season?).

The problem for USC isn't just that it has struggled this year after being the consensus No. 1 team in preseason polls; it's that the Trojans have struggled while playing against a weak first-half schedule which included the four worst teams in the Pac-10. They now face the real meat of their schedule with road trips to Notre Dame, Oregon, Cal and Arizona State, as well as home games against Oregon State and UCLA, both of which upset them last season. If they can somehow rediscover their offense and win out, all will be forgotten with another conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. But really, does anyone who's seen the team this season have any confidence that will happen?

Even if the Trojans do turn their season around, their debut at No. 14 in the BCS rankings this week has all but guaranteed they are not playing for a shot at the national championship game come season's end -- for the first time in four years. The lowest opening BCS ranking for a team that ended up playing in the BCS championship game was LSU, which debuted at No. 12 in 2003. Aside from that resurgent Tigers squad, no team ranked lower than sixth in the opening BCS rankings has advanced to play in the national championship game. It isn't likely that the Trojans will make history, considering their one loss is viewed by many as the greatest upset in college football history. Not exactly a quality loss that will elicit sympathy from voters comparing one-loss teams.

There is a litany of reasons why the Trojans have struggled this season. The injury bug has bitten this team more than any other squad during the Carroll-era, as 11 starters have already missed games due to injury. The defense, with its 10 returning starters, is not as good as advertised. (Aside from the inability to create turnovers, a staple of Carroll defenses, this unit will always be remembered for allowing Stanford, led by an inexperienced backup quarterback, to convert on a fourth-and-20 and a fourth-and-10 on the game-winning drive.) The offense is the most anemic unit since Carroll's first season in 2001, with receivers dropping passes, quarterbacks throwing interceptions, offensive lineman and tailbacks are being shuttled in and out with injuries and the punting unit making more appearances than Tom Malone did during his four-year career at the school.

Just as surprising as USC's performance this season has been the reaction from USC fans to their now struggling Trojans. There have been more than 20,000 empty seats at the Coliseum for USC's last three home games, with attendance diminishing every week since the season opener, and those that have come to the games have booed the team coming off the field at halftime the last two weeks. Listening to cardinal-and-gold clad fans booing a team that has won more than 92 percent of its games over the past five seasons called to mind Barry Switzer's famous quote while he coached a similarly dominant Oklahoma team, which too fell on hard times, in the 1980s: "We create these giant football monsters when we win. They are voracious and we have to feed them every year!"

Time will tell if the Trojan monster will be satisfied by season's end. At the very least, this much is certain: The aura that surrounded this program during one of the most impressive five-year stretches in college football history is dead and gone.