On the way up

Dan Wetzel

MIAMI – In the hours leading up to what would soon be another domination by the machine he has built out in Los Angeles, Pete Carroll wasn't fretting about the game plan.

The Southern California coach was punching up top 100 recruits on his cell phone – from New Jersey to Illinois to Florida – cooing into their ears, reminding them to watch the game and then envisioning how it could one day all be theirs.

At this point, how could any of them say no?

Right now, there is USC and there is everybody else. The Trojans' 55-19 pounding of Oklahoma Tuesday in the Orange Bowl is just the latest example of a juggernaut that seems to be gaining speed.

"This is a program that is flying," smiled Carroll. "No doubt about that."

With the victory, the Trojans captured the BCS championship trophy. It was their 22nd consecutive win and 33rd win in their last 34. Last year, even though the BCS denied them a chance to play in the title game, USC won the AP national title.

Oh, and as many as 17 starters could return next year.

That list includes Heisman winner Matt Leinart who, despite having nothing left to prove, may leave millions on the table because being a Trojan right now is the kind of fun money can't buy.

"It's just something special that we're a part of, to have the chance to do a third national championship and at the Rose Bowl next year in our backyard," said Leinart, who threw five TDs on Tuesday.

Carroll wants Leinart to return, but he didn't sound that concerned either.

"This program is bigger than one guy," said Carroll. "We can't wait to see who does something special next."

This is what it is to be SC right now, a powerhouse for the ages in an era when it wasn't supposed to be possible, what with parity and scholarship reductions. Lose a Heisman winner? Just call some more recruits.

Perhaps Tuesday's outcome would have been different if Auburn or even Utah were the opponent and not a bumbling Oklahoma club that was a bigger fraud than halftime performer Ashlee Simpson.

But we doubt it.

Oklahoma was 12-0, boasted a balanced offense and hadn't given up a touchdown since early November. Yet the Sooners had no business being on the field with USC. The Trojans owned every segment of the game: running, passing, defense.

It could have been worse too, which is how big the machine has gotten. Oklahoma's best player, freshman Adrian Peterson, almost chose SC last year. Considering the Trojans already have the embarrassment of running riches known as Reggie Bush and LenDale White (a combined 193 yards) the question is, what the heck would they have done with him?

"Play him," said assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron, who was just hired as head coach at Mississippi. "He would have brought more competition to our program, and our program is built on competition.

"If he was the best man, well, he would have had to beat out some great players."

Not surprisingly, SC signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country last year according to rivals.com. The year before, No. 3. Only a few of those players are currently starting, which will tell you about the future. This program is so deep, so well-organized and so competitive, that USC lost three starters to injury this season and still went 13-0.

It lost its best player, wideout Mike Williams, to an eligibility snafu and still hung half a hundred (plus five) on the Sooners.

While Carroll's core will always come from California, the recruits are flowing from all over now. If, as it is expected, they get linebacker Brian Cushing, one of Carroll's game-day recruiting calls, they'll have signed their second consecutive New Jersey player of the year.

If this year began with questions about SC's youth, there are no such concerns about next season. There are no weaknesses here. This program has scaled the mountain yet somehow still hasn't peaked.

"It's just so scary," Leinart said. "These guys, myself included, are so young. It's supposed to the biggest game but once it gets going [it felt like] nothing special."

Nothing except everything.