Win Saturday and you can forget the East Coast bias.
Win Saturday and Pete Carroll gets to unleash Norm Chow and Mike Williams on that vaunted Oklahoma defense.
Win Saturday and, at least it appears, laid-back SoCal can relax again about the dreaded BCS computers.
"I think if we win we are sitting pretty good," says Carroll, coach of No. 2 USC. "I have always been pretty optimistic about stuff, and that's how I'm looking at it."
So LSU can't overtake you?
"I don't think that's going to happen."
Win Saturday and USC – finally – gets to play for a national title again. Win Saturday and the Pac-10 – finally – is back on the nation's biggest stage.
From 1962 to 1978, under coaches John McKay and John Robinson and paced by a slew of tailbacks named Garrett, White and Simpson (all Heisman winners), the Trojans won five national titles. Year in, year out, USC was one of the true national powers.
This was when California was golden, when the state's population surged and its supply of high school and junior college talent seemed endless.
If you had predicted in 1978, when Marcus Allen was just warming up, that for the next 24 seasons the Trojans would not factor in another national championship you would have been locked in a mental asylum with the guy claiming Los Angeles would be without an NFL franchise.
But here we are. One Trojan victory from the restoration of a program. One win from all that potential finally returning.
"This is really an exciting time for us," says Carroll, whose natural enthusiasm didn't work as an NFL head coach but obviously does in college. "This is a great ballgame that we are going into, with everything riding on this game. There will be tremendous focus about the outcome of the game."
When was the last time a late-season game featuring a Pac-10 team had that going for it?
Actually it was 1998, when a 10-0 UCLA team traveled to Miami and allowed 49 points. End of title chase, reaffirmation of the Pac-10's reputation for playing flag football-style defense.
That's the thing about the Pac-10. It's had its chances, but rarely delivered.
In 1994 (Arizona) and 2001 (Oregon State), league teams entered the season on a Sports Illustrated cover and ended in collapse. In 1997 Arizona State played in the Rose Bowl at 11-0 and lost. In 2001 Oregon went 12-1, but the BCS chose a limping Nebraska club instead.
There have been five BCS championship games. The Pac-10 is the only conference with an automatic BCS bid never to have played for the title.
With the exception of the folks down in Louisiana, much of the country hopes that trend ends this season. The idea of USC and its game-breaking offense – one that is producing a average margin of victory of 26 points – getting a shot at the Sooners is a dream matchup.
Despite losing Heisman winner Carson Palmer, the Trojans haven't missed a beat. Quarterback Matt Leinart has thrown for 30 touchdowns, 14 of them to super-receiver Mike Williams. The defense, while not the equal of OU or LSU, is allowing just 18 points per game.
Playing for the title again is how it should be for this program. It's not like the local talent pool dried up during the last quarter century. USC boasts 35 current NFL players (36 if you include Keyshawn Johnson). One in eight Americans lives in the Schwarzenegger State.
But until Carroll showed up and emphasized a bit of defense and a lot of confidence, the Trojans were afterthoughts. Now they have talent and tenacity, focus and a killer instinct. And Carroll, in just three seasons, has begun to build a wall around the state in recruiting.
"The potential to have a long-standing winning program is at hand," he says. "We have this tremendous market of talent here in Southern California. We are just getting started in what to me is a long run here of something special.
"We are going to go for it."
- Pete Carroll
- Mike Williams