USC back in title hunt?

PASADENA, Calif. – For the USC Trojans, Tuesday's Rose Bowl was about far more than winning.

It was about attracting attention – with prolific offense, dominating defense and ridiculous celebrations – actions that would send a message to the college football world.

The best-laid plans of the Bowl Championship Series and decorum be damned, the Trojans screamed. Showtime was back in L.A., and any talk about the national championship shouldn't be centered solely on Ohio State and LSU.

"I would love to play one more," defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis said. "I don't think any team in the NCAA could beat us right now."

Four minutes and three seconds into what would become a 49-17 rout of Illinois, notice was served. The swagger that Stanford had stolen from USC in October was back. Afterward, you had to wonder: could Pete Carroll's brash team bust up the BCS and earn an Associated Press national title?

Chauncey Washington offered an answer when he hauled in an 8-yard touchdown pass from John David Booty on USC's opening possession. The nine-play, 72-yard drive turned the SC sideline into a chorus line.

Two minutes later, Desmond Reed shouted a response. He somersaulted into the end zone, spiked the ball and incited the crowd after hauling in a 34-yard option pass for USC's second touchdown.

Freshman Joe McKnight weighed in with 125 yards rushing on 10 carries, 45 yards receiving and a touchdown.

Linebacker Rey Maualuga had something to say with three sacks and an interception.

The sum total: A Rose Bowl-record 633 yards of total offense. Seven touchdowns. Five sacks. One fired up coach.

In his postgame news conference, Carroll indicated he wouldn't campaign for a split championship or beat the drum for a playoff system as an alternative to the BCS.

But he couldn't hide his true feelings.

"Would we love to still be playing right now? Sure would," Carroll said. "We'd go out there any time, any place, any venue and throw our football out there and see what we could do.

"Let the argument go on out there for the people who are battling the BCS process to try and figure it out. I don't know and I have no answers for them. I just wish we could keep playing. And I know these guys do too."

After letting the Illini climb within 11 points in the third quarter, USC stepped on the accelerator. Motoring to 28 unanswered points and their fifth consecutive win, the Trojans seem to be playing as well as any team in the land.

Will the skidmarks they left on the Illini serve as a springboard to a split championship?

The BCS did its best to seal the Trojans' fate by pitting them against Illinois instead of Georgia in the Rose Bowl. The rigged system hoped to quell any chance for controversy over the validity of the Jan. 7 championship game. Instead it served to deny the nation a more interesting Rose matchup that would have better quantified how good USC and Georgia are.

So the Trojans proceeded to pile up a 32-point win over the Illini, 9-4 and the second-best team from a sketchy Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs whipped overmatched Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, just as everyone expected they would.

Neither blowout victory could be considered much of a measuring stick.

One could argue that USC (11-2) looks better at this stage than Ohio State (11-1). The Buckeyes were beaten by this same Illini team just seven weeks ago in Columbus. It could be debated that the Trojans are superior to LSU (11-2), which bowed to a mediocre Arkansas team on Nov. 23.

With the BCS instead of a playoff, we'll never know.

A USC leap in the final AP poll is highly unlikely. In addition to jumping Ohio State and LSU, the Trojans would have to hurdle Georgia and Oklahoma, another team that seems to be peaking and a favorite over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

USC can only hope that Ohio State and LSU get bogged down and slog along on Bourbon Street, and the Buckeyes escape with an ugly, narrow victory.

That still won't be enough.

Why? USC would have two losses to Ohio State's one. Say what you will about the Buckeyes' creampuff scheduling (Youngstown State, Akron and Kent State) and the crummy Big Ten.

It doesn't offset the Trojans' Cardinal sin. National champions do not lose to 41-point underdogs such as Stanford. At home. Against a backup quarterback making his first start.

Even the raucous events at the Rose Bowl can't change that.