No matter how hard Pete Carroll tries to turn the focus forward to the upcoming game against Washington, Saturday’s classic against Ohio State might be the only thing USC fans talk about for some time.
The tilt between top-10 teams was a rarity on a number of levels.
Earlier in the fall, Carroll mused on how few last-minute thrillers he had been involved in as a college coach. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Chris Galippo noted in the locker room after the game that it may have been the first instance of a close win that USC has experienced since he joined the team.
But to the rest of the college football world, the primetime matchup was a ballad of a dying breed of intersectional regular-season games between top teams.
There’s a simple reason why ESPN and ABC hyped the last two matchups between the Trojans and Buckeyes so heavily — top-tier non-conference games are an endangered species.
Take a look at the non-conference schedules of the other top-five teams. Charleston Southern, Florida International and Louisiana-Monroe don’t exactly constitute a murderers’ row of opponents for powerhouse teams.
With strength of schedule no longer a component of the Bowl Championship Series, most teams would prefer to pay a small directional school a hefty payday in exchange for an easy win. And with the rise of giant-killers like Boise State, Utah and BYU, few teams want to even take a risk in jeopardizing their postseason hopes by scheduling a solid opponent.
San Jose State hardly made for a high-powered opener, but the Trojans still deserve credit for their courage in scheduling since Carroll’s arrival. USC is one of the few schools that has never played against a Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division-IAA) school. Moreover, the team has given its fans chances to see some of college football’s best and brightest, including then-powerhouses Kansas State, Auburn and Virginia Tech.
And that annual date with Notre Dame has made for some fun games, too.
“These difficult road games early in the year help make us,” Carroll said after Saturday’s win. “You build from there if you learn the lessons.”
It’s easy to say that the high reward of scheduling tough out-of-conference opponents outweighs the high risk after USC came away with yet another critical road win. But if the Trojans’ final drive had stalled, most fans probably would be bemoaning the strategy and wishing that Cal Poly had come to town for a guaranteed win before conference play.
And it’s not certain that the Trojans will parlay their success against Ohio State into wins in conference. The celebrations following last year’s romp against the Buckeyes were brought to a halt when Oregon State upended the Trojans the following Thursday.
But Carroll’s condition of “if you can learn the lessons” is the key to the rest of the season and whether anything will grow from the team’s experience in the Midwest. The Trojans were outplayed for long stretches of the game and have plenty to take away from the game in ways to improve.
How they respond to the flaws they showed Saturday will ultimately determine how far the Trojans can go during the rest of the season. The 2004 team took more than just a win away from its contest with Virginia Tech and only experienced a couple more close calls on their way to the national championship.
But no matter how far USC goes from this point forward, fans should be grateful to the school and team for giving them arguably the most entertaining game of the last three and a half years.
“This is the most intense college football game I’ve ever been a part of,” Galippo said.
USC doesn’t look like it will be changing its scheduling philosophy anytime soon. Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton announced last week that his school had reached a verbal agreement with USC for a home-and-home in 2021 and 2022.
To give you an idea of how far off that is, both Carroll and current Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin could be long gone by the time that series comes to fruition — if it ever does. There’s no guarantee that both programs will still be competitive come kickoff. I will be 34 when the second game is played and the future USC student who will hold my current position at the Daily Trojan is probably only eight years old right now.
But I’m sure we’ll both be watching the game.
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