Regardless of the gracious things Pete Carroll and his charges will say about returning to the Rose Bowl for the fourth year in a row, you know the prospect of another bus ride to Disneyland is driving these guys barking mad. This means that an entire generation of Trojans will never take an airplane to a bowl game. 'SC players are on a first-name basis with the wait staff at Lawry's restaurant, where they know the difference between the "Beef Bowl cut" and the "Diamond Jim Brady cut," and how many shrimp come with the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail. That would be five -- the number of times USC will have played in the "Grandaddy of 'em all" in the last six years. It's safe to say this is one grandparent the Trojans would not mind seeing trundled off to a rest home.
Walking off the practice field with Carroll last week, a few days before his team beat Notre Dame for the seventh straight time, I sought to plumb the coach's frustration. In 2006 and 2007, a one-loss season would've earned his team a ticket to the BCS title game. (Both times, the Trojans dropped a second game). In 2008, however, it took only that sole defeat to keep them out of The Game. With Pac-10 schools going 14-16 against non-conference foes (including an embarrassing 1-6 mark against the Mountain West); with half the conference under .500; with the Washington schools playing their worst football in a generation, the BCS computers could not have been less impressed with the Trojans' seven Pac-10 victories.
"But at least they're in the Pac-10," Carroll interrupted, as I ticked off the woes of the Bruins and Cougars and Huskies. "What conference is The Citadel in?"
A millisecond later, he was spouting assurances that he had nothing but respect for The Citadel (a member, incidentally, of the Southern Conference, one of the strongest leagues in the FCS, formerly known as I-AA). But the battle was joined.
"Who's better?" he asked, "Oregon State or Ole Miss?" Which team is more deserving of a shot at the national title, in other words: the team that lost to the Beavers in Corvallis, or the one that got rolled by Mississippi in their own Swamp?
"Oregon State is vying for a conference championship. What's Ole Miss doing?"
Carroll's main point: Before we reflexively concede that SEC teams play stronger schedules than the rest of the world, cast an objective eye on their slate of non-conference opponents. While Florida deserves credit for taking on Florida State, and even Hawaii -- a Sugar Bowl team last season -- the Gators also enjoyed a mid-November exhibition against The Citadel. Georgia hosted Georgia Southern, South Carolina waxed Wofford, LSU welcomed Appalachian State. Mississippi's eight victories included romps past Memphis, Samford and Louisiana-Monroe. Wins over those same ULM Warhawks, and Tennessee-Martin, couldn't save the job of Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville.
Did the Pac-10 stink on ice this season? Overall, yes. It absolutely did. But give its programs credit for not insulting fans by rolling pastry carts onto the field and pretending they are worthy opponents. While SEC squads faced off against eight I-AA foes -- plus the likes of Northern Illinois, UAB, Memphis and a handful of hyphenated Louisiana schools -- Pac-10 athletic directors know such "buy" games won't cut it with a more demanding fan base. Of that league's 30 non-conference opponents, two hailed from I-AA. (And thank God for the Portland State Vikings, who constituted 50 percent of Washington State's victories this season.)
USC's non-conference lineup (Virginia, Ohio State, Notre Dame), was only slightly more ambitious than that of Cal (Michigan State, Maryland, Colorado State). One of UCLA's three wins was against Tennessee. (It's not the Bruins fault the Vols fell apart this season.) Oregon State had nothing to apologize for in its losses to 11-1 Penn State and undefeated Utah. And the wretched Huskies of Washington, had they chosen an easier road -- scheduling, for instance, an Idaho State, rather than BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame ---- wouldn't be 0-for '08.
SEC partisans are now manning the ramparts, angrily pointing out that, with such an inhuman in-conference slate of teams to play, members of their league have no choice but to allow themselves a few breathers, or risk decimating injuries. But that logic crumbled this season, as the SEC took several steps backward, with LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee turning in disappointing seasons.
None of which is to say that this conference has been eclipsed by the Big 12. Let's see what happens in Dolphins Stadium on Jan. 8, when Florida or Alabama could deliver to the SEC a third straight national championship.
We know what's going to happen a week earlier, in the Rose Bowl. After hearing for the better part of a month that an anti-climax awaits them; how vulnerable they are to an emotional let-down, the Trojans will take the 65-inch Liquid Crystal Display TV that is Penn State's Spread HD offense, and they will stomp and grind it into the Bermuda grass of the Rose Bowl until there is nothing left but pixels.
That's my prediction for what lies in store on New Year's Day, which will double, for USC, as Groundhog Day.