Trojans In Unfamiliar Territory

Poor play has USC on outside looking in of national title picture

College Football Preview: Week 8

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> Caparell: USC In Unfamiliar Territory  |  Blackburn: On The Firing Line  |  Crystal Ball: Predictions

Oct. 19, 2007

By Adam Caparell



Adam is's football editor and national football writer.
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The No. 2 team in the BCS standings starts with a U and it isn't USC. And for that reason, Pete Carroll has taken some flack considering the Trojans coach hasn't found his team in its present standing in quite some time.


The Trojans, currently ranked 13th in the nation, haven't been out of the Top 10 since late Oct. 2002 and the No. 14 ranking they received in this season's first BCS standings is the lowest they've been since Oct. 20, 2002.


And it's all because USC -- the preseason No. 1 and the greatest team college football had ever seen, according to Stanford's Jim Harbaugh -- has been humbled the past four weeks with rather unimpressive wins over Washington State, Washington and Arizona coupled with the biggest upset in college football history -- if your barometer is the point spread -- at the hands of Harbaugh's Cardinal in The Coliseum.




So, understandably, Carroll's been peppered with a lot of questions the past few weeks about what's wrong with USC, why they've played so poorly and how it is possible that the team with the most talent on paper has labored to beat teams it should have walked all over?


"I totally understand the questions," Carroll said earlier this week. "I really don't have a way to make everybody feel at ease on this one. If you're implying that we're not doing well and that's the way you want to go with this, well, you can. But I think right now we're enduring the season and enduring what happened to us."


Carroll won't say it, but what has happened to the Trojans is rather simple. And it's three-fold.


For starters, over the past two seasons they've lost a ton of talent. At the start of 2006, 10-of-22 starters were gone from the 2005 squad, a team that was under consideration for the title of the best ever before its loss to Texas in the national championship game. Two of those 10 departed starters were Heisman Trophy winners. And despite the fact they finished 11-2 and won the Rose Bowl handedly over Michigan last season, the Trojans of 2006 weren't the same team as 2005. In Carroll's eyes, they were much closer to the 2007 version.


"If you look back and you think all of the games last year, you won 10 games and we rolled right through it," Carroll said. "We didn't at all. We fought every single game, particularly in the conference, to get those wins."


Entering this fall, five key players from the 2006 squad left the Trojans to play at the next level. Guys like Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith and Ryan Kalil, three stalwarts on offense, are playing for pay instead of in L.A., so it shouldn't be such a shock that the offense has struggled, aside from one half against an awful Nebraska defense. Jarrett's and Smith's replacements have been underwhelming, dropping too many passes. And John David Booty, through a season and a half of taking over for Matt Leinart, hasn't been nearly as prolific as his predecessor.


Another big reason for the struggles can be chalked up to injuries. Both sides of the ball have been hit hard and some of the Trojans most important players have not been immune. Booty has been battling a broken middle finger -- along with inconsistent play. Sam Baker remains out of the lineup and offensive line depth has been a major problem all year. Practically every running back has spent time on the sidelines with some kind of ailment. The linebacking corps -- arguably the best in the country -- has been nicked up all year and Brian Cushing may finally see some action this weekend.


"My approach is we're going to get stronger from this point forward as guys start to return to us, and we'll just keep calling on guys to step up and play at front line level whether they've been playing or not," Carroll said.


You can also point to fundamentals. The Trojans are turning the ball over too much, have missed a lot of tackles and are one of the most penalized teams in the country. And it all came to a head in that shocking upset to 41-point underdog Stanford two weeks ago which changed both the Pac-10 and national championship picture.


"And because we have a loss right now, you don't know where we're going to finish. I don't know yet," Carroll said. "I know this: We need to play really well this weekend and get our game won and then continue to grow."  


The Trojans head to South Bend Saturday where they'll play on the down-on-their-luck Irish as one of college football's most storied rivalries is renewed.


But it's a far cry from the treat we all got in 2005 when USC won on the "Bush Push." Carroll can sort of relate to Charlie Weis and the disappointment that's been 2007 for the Irish. Notre Dame finally won a game two weeks ago against UCLA as the Irish are immersed in their worst season in ages. At 1-6, the disaster that is Notre Dame is due in large part to the amount of talent lost from last year's high-scoring offense.


"I know the situation with Notre Dame, who has had a tough start to their season, [it] looks like this should be an easy game for us. It's not going to be," Carroll said. "This is a good, hard-playing football team right now. They're finding themselves and trying to get on track with a bunch of new starters and new guys as well. This could be just like the rest of them."


Carroll doesn't expect the 2005 offense that averaged nearly 50 points per game to show up anytime soon. He'll take a win no matter how ugly it looks, and just about every one of USC's victories has been anything but pretty.


"If you can come up and find winning ways, that's really important," Carroll said. "It isn't about style points for us; it's about getting wins right now. In that, one of the benefits of this time is that a lot of guys get to play and they have to find their level of play. That helps us."


Carroll honestly feels like the Trojans best football is just ahead of them. Saturday will be their seventh game of the season and USC didn't get going until after its midpoint last year.


"About game eight or nine or something we really got on track and really started hitting it," Carroll said. "Well, that's still out there for us. That could still happen now. I have that in my mind that that's a likely scenario if things come together, if we have good fortune and our guys hang."


But it's probably too late to live up the lofty preseason expectations if history is any indication. The lowest a team has debuted in the BCS rankings and won the national championship is No. 12 and it was LSU the year they won the BCS title in 2003.


Of course, that was the year the Trojans won the AP national title. There won't be any dual champions this year, but Carroll won't rule out something grand for his Trojans. Not with so much football left to play. Especially in this wild and crazy season where expectations have been tossed to the curb.