Until the Pac-1 becomes Pac-10, USC won't catch a break

Friday September 25th, 2009

There's a lot to love about Pete Carroll, including his Tweeting. He's easily the best of the football coaches trying to be cool with the kids in 140 characters or less. Probably because at 58, he remains one of the cool kids.

Carroll gives us a SOTD (Song of the Day), like The Rising from Bruce Springsteen ("to help celebrate his bday"). On Wednesday, he offered this tip:

"98.7 in LA is going to play the new foo fighters song this morning in case you're interested"

Hey, how could you not be? But like so many else on Twitter, the coach provides inanity, too. Carroll tapped out this message shortly after USC's loss to Washington:

"what's crucial is not the adversity but how you respond to it ... we're on the rebound ... the bounce is what counts"

Sorry Pete, but the bounce counts in Gainesville and Norman. And in Austin, Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa.

In Los Angeles, the loss counts. Haven't you learned that by now?

USC's latest inexplicable meltdown has probably cost the Trojans a shot at the national title. Again.

In the last five seasons, USC is 61-7. Much has been made of the Trojans' play-anybody scheduling philosophy, and with good reason. USC is 30-1 against nonconference opponents since 2002. And we're not talking about Charleston Southern; the Trojans are 15-1 against ranked nonconference opponents.

But the number that counts these days is one, as in the annual Pac-10 loss that leaves everyone shaking their heads. Oregon State. UCLA. Stanford. Oregon State again. And now Washington. For USC, the yearly stumble has been too damaging to overcome.

It's worth questioning how good this USC bunch is, considering the collection of raw quarterbacks and the underwhelming tailbacks and receivers. But assuming the Trojans are better than they played last Saturday at Husky Stadium and by December might be as good as any team, anywhere -- not an unreasonable assumption, considering the talent on hand -- we're likely about to watch a familiar rerun. USC wins out, then pounds some Big Ten patsy in the Rose Bowl. We all recognize the Trojans might have done pretty well in the BCS Championship Game. We tsk-tsk about that loss in Seattle, way back in September, that eliminated them from the race.

Not long ago, CBSSports.com ranked USC as the top program of the decade. There's an argument to be had, sure. But there's no debate about this: Alone among the elites, USC has no margin for error.

Florida? Texas? Alabama? Oklahoma? LSU? All can work their way into the biggest game despite a loss. As long as it's early, the opponent might not even matter.

Florida loses at home to Ole Miss, and it's just another example of how tough life is in the SEC. Hey, when Ole Miss lost at South Carolina on Thursday night, the TV babble-heads immediately started talking about how nothing's ever easy in those SEC snakepits. (Meanwhile, many of us were thinking our suspicions had been confirmed: Ole Miss was overrated, and the Rebels' performance was vintage Houston Nutt, complete with terrible decisions/mistakes in crunch time.)

But let's be honest: Ole Miss' loss Thursday night was better than Florida's home loss to the Rebels last year. And that loss, of course, didn't derail Florida so much as propel the Gators, enlarging the legend of Tim Tebow (and leading eventually to a nice plaque memorializing his postgame promise).

USC's loss at Oregon State two days earlier? Never mind that Corvallis is a tough place for visitors, or that the Beavers were in contention for the Pac-10 title until the last weekend of the regular season. When USC loses in the Pac-10 -- most often, it's in the Pacific Northwest -- it's a monumental upset, and a devastating blow.

Which is crazy.

Much of this mess is of Carroll's own making. The Trojans have managed seven consecutive top four finishes in the AP poll and been to seven consecutive BCS bowls. But there's another USC streak everyone cites:

Seven straight Pac-10 titles.

That's a problem, because it leads to the national perception that it's really the Pac-1. And when Carroll brags, as he did before the season started, that the Pac-10 is "the best conference in the country," or when new commissioner Larry Scott says "the reality is that the conference is deep," most find it difficult to keep from laughing.

It doesn't matter that last season, the Pac-10 went 5-0 in bowl games. USC manhandled the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl, as usual. Oregon physically dominated an Oklahoma State team that was gearing up to become 2009's August flavor of the month. Cal notched an Emerald Bowl victory over a Miami team now dominating the headlines.

It doesn't matter when the league office trots out some nice statistics; like that the Pac-10 is 19-6 in nonconference play this season and has played more games against other BCS conferences than any league.

USC beat Ohio State, like always, and did it at the Horseshoe, with a freshman quarterback. California went cross-country to beat Minnesota. Two weeks before beating USC, Washington showed signs of life in a loss to LSU. Oregon beat Purdue and Utah. (On the other hand, Oregon State lost at home to a solid Cincinnati team, Oregon was punchless -- during the game -- at Boise State, Arizona wasn't ready for Iowa, and Stanford lost to Wake Forest.) And did anyone see anything soft about UCLA's performance at Tennessee -- or Kevin Prince's? Stacked against the rest of the Pac-10, UCLA looks like a nice contender for the Sun Bowl.

But the league never seems to earn much credit for playing, top to bottom, tougher nonconference schedules than any other league. Or for winning. This week, the Wall Street Journal even chimed in, noting that since 2000, the Pac-10 has the best record against other BCS conferences (81-62) and a winning record against the other five leagues.

Of course, statistics aside, the Pac-10's not the SEC. But top to bottom, the Pac-10 is much better than its rep, and so USC has gotten a bad rap.

But none of that matters.

Part of the problem is geography, and it's not going away. The time zones won't change, the Pac-10's pitiful TV arrangements won't expire for years and some voters will always be in bed by the time the last Pac-10 games have finished on Saturday nights.

The nine-game, round-robin conference schedule doesn't do the Pac-10 any favors, either. The league's coaches voted last spring to get rid of it, but the athletic directors voted to keep it. That's great for the fans, but not so good for the coaches and teams and the league overall.

Instead of grabbing one more easy win -- like they do in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC -- Pac-10 teams begin beating up each other a game early. This hurts the effort to get teams bowl-eligible. And more importantly, to get a second team into a BCS bowl (which hasn't happened since 2002).

Whatever the reasons, when it comes to USC it doesn't matter that Oregon State has proven to be pretty good over the last few years, or that SteveSarkisian's Huskies might be fairly talented -- certainly, with a healthy Jake Locker, they're much better than 0-12. College football watches the upset, snickers, and erases USC from the BCS race.

USC must win out and hope everyone else loses, and even that probably won't be enough to get the Trojans into the BCS Championship Game.

But there's a solution, for this year, and the future: The Pac-10 needs a different champion.

How about Cal?

In a weird way, that might be the best thing that could happen to Carroll and the Trojans. Cal, or anyone else, wins the league. Other things have to happen, too -- the new champion must win the Rose Bowl, and the rest of the league must continue to show teeth in bowl games, and somehow the national perception needs to be less about USC slipping and more about the Pac-10's strength. It would help if USC grabbed a BCS at-large berth.

Maybe then, people won't presume the Pac-10 is the Pac-1, and USC's annual league loss won't be quite so devastating.

Maybe then, it will be the bounce that counts.

Otherwise, we've always got the SOTD.

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