August 17, 2009
Introducing Pac-10 Week.
When you throw out the term "vulnerable" in connection with Southern Cal, some context is in order: On a week-to-week basis, clearly the Trojans are vulnerable, and have been throughout much of their streak as the most consistently dominant outfit in the country -- they've lost five Pac-10 games in the last three years, four of them to double-digit underdogs. The SC collapses have been so random and so sudden -- and, after Oregon State extended the "stunning letdown" streak to three year, so frequent -- that we're almost to the point that the question isn't "if" but "when." At Cal? At Oregon? Maybe the Trojans get up for those games, ostensibly the toughest of the conference slate, but what about at Arizona State? UCLA? Maybe it's Arizona's turn. Or dare Stanford raise up again at the Coliseum? By now, we've learned the shot could come from almost anyone, at almost any time.
But presumably the Trojans have learned the same lesson, and the fact remains that even the occasional stumble when wading through the rabble hasn't been enough to force SC to cede the crown -- far from it, actually: Its current run of dominance (at least a share of seven straight conference championships, all by team that finished in the top five of the polls and, except for the dominant '05 team that lost to Texas in the final seconds, cruised to lopsided BCS wins) is unmatched over the same period and reminiscent of Florida State's iron grip on the ACC in the nineties. Just like FSU then, there's basically no realistic conception of UCS not winning the Pac-10.
Those gaps correspond directly with the Trojans' utter domination of West Coast (and, to some extent, national) recruiting, which continues essentially unchecked despite UCLA's best efforts last year. It also corresponds with the proliferation of the "Pac-1" stereotype, despite the fact that USC has lost seven Pac-10 games since its last regular season loss outside of the conference, to Kansas State in 2002.
Which brings us to the burning question of the week: Is there any way to predict when SC unbroken run atop the bones of the rest of the league will finally end? Is it even worth trying? The magazine and pundits this summer definitely don't think so. Among the outlets tracked by Stassen.com, the only non-Trojan vote at No. 1 this year comes from an obscure site called NCAA Football Commentary, which appears to be down at the moment; no other outlet has picked any team but SC at No. 1 in the Pac-10 since Street & Smith's and Blue Ribbon took fliers on Cal in 2006. Of 81 picks from individual outlets tracked since 2004, that makes all of three who have gone against the grain, and those were probably cast for little more than the sake of contrarianism. By now, even the rewards of breaking from the conventional wisdom have no case to make against the charge of sheer stupidity.
And that's going to be the case -- and should be the case -- until it's not; that is, no one's going to see the coup coming until it's finished and the inviolable juggernaut is relegated to the Holiday Bowl. (Or, if we're projecting, perhaps to the Alamo.)
But if you could see it coming, what would you look for? What circumstances would tip you off as harbingers of a fall? Maybe they'd look something like this:
• A new quarterback -- and possibly a true freshman -- with zero starting experience and not even any really significant snaps.
• A new offensive coordinator with no experience as a full-fledged coordinator.
• At least eight new starters on a defense coming off one of the most dominant seasons in conference history, replacing a staggering eight draft picks and also under a new coordinator.
• A schedule that calls for road trips to the two toughest conference opponents (not to mention the toughest non-conference opponents) in the first half of the season, before the new quarterbacks and receivers have a chance to gel.
Clearly, you'd be a lunatic to bet against SC extending its championship streak to eight years under pretty much any circumstances, based on its history, talent and depth (if one five-star, all-world quarterback doesn't pan out, on to the next one ...) alone. But if you were writing a script for the fall of the dynasty -- or at least an unprecedented interruption -- it would probably include most of the factors the Trojans are facing this year: A green quarterback; a totally revamped defense; new coordinators on both sides of the ball; and all of the toughest games on the road, within a seven-week span before the start of November.
I'm going to spend part of the rest of the week each of those factors - not necessarily because I think they're fatal, even as a confluence, but just because I'm crazy like that. There's ample evidence SC can be beaten in isolated cases, and in the big picture, imagining the Trojans falling back to the pack is just like imagining them losing a game: Week to week (or year to year), it seems insurmountable, but the odds still insist it must happen eventually. And so you're left with four unbelievable upsets in a three-year span. If those same odds have to catch up with the Pac-10 dynasty eventually, are they ever going to be better than they are this fall?