For the second straight week, ESPN’s College GameDay will feature a matchup with a Pac-10 team.
For the second straight week, USC is not that team.
In the previous decade, this would have been unthinkable. Pete Carroll invaded the Pac-10 and the Trojans were soon lords of the empire. Only a few times during USC’s run of seven straight Pac-10 championships — most notably in 2007 when Oregon and Cal both rose to No. 2 and Arizona State hit No. 5 nationally — did the rest of the conference try to throw a coup d’état.
The matchup between No. 4 Oregon and No. 9 Stanford this Saturday, two of the three Pac-10 teams currently ranked higher than undefeated USC, officially signals the rise of depth and parity in the Pac-10.
Believe it or not, that’s a good thing for the Trojans.
Or course, this makes the most sense if USC can remain undefeated and beat the higher-ranked foes. If this happens, the Trojans will most likely be in the top 5 come November, and then there will be talk about them winning the AP title even though they can’t go to a bowl game.
Without the depth in the Pac-10, USC wouldn’t even have a chance to crack the top 5, maybe even not the top 10. Unfortunately for the Trojans, its non-conference schedule of solely FBS teams turned out to be easier than slicing a fork through tiramisu. That, combined with the negative national perception of USC thanks to the sanctions, ousting of the athletic director and Heisman Trophy fiasco, doesn’t give voters the sense of gusto USC once had.
But say the Trojans don’t win. Say the depth and strength of the Pac-10 is too much for them to handle and they end up in the middle of the conference at the end of the season. Is the depth still good for them?
While anyone’s initial reaction would be to go all Will Smith and say “Aw hell no,” Trojan fans should take a deeper look and realize the depth could still help the Trojans.
It’s no secret that USC has played with far less than the maximum number of scholarship players allowed on the roster this season. The Trojans are so stretched to the limit that coach Lane Kiffin half-joked at practice Tuesday that he had kids from science class who had never played football filling out the practice squad. Kiffin limits tackling during practice to keep the team healthy, because one or two injuries could be the difference between one loss and three losses.
With three Pac-10 teams above USC trying to hog the conference spotlight this year, the pressure is off the Trojans to do well. Almost everyone expects them to finish third or fourth in the conference at season’s end. This means that USC doesn’t have to worry about embarrassing itself (for the most part) on the national stage.
This is important because now the Trojans have a few years to buy into the philosophy of its new coach. Kiffin could not have chosen a better time to come to USC. The pressure is off him to win the BCS Championship in his first few years, meaning that the microscope isn’t so sharply focused on him and he can spend some time making his mark on the program. Fans and supporters will also have an adjustment period instead of calling for his head if he doesn’t win the national championship in his first year.
USC’s role as an underdog, something it hasn’t been in quite some time, benefits the program as well. With the sanctions on the team, the Trojans have shown that they are down, but not out. In any situation, the best thing to do after getting a blow to the face is retreat to your corner, get stitched up and think of a new plan of attack so that when it’s time to get back into battle, you will be ready.
With the newfound conference depth, the Trojans are able to do just that, lick their wounds and get healed. If they were supposed to be the best team in the league, they would have to try to recuperate with the expectation of winning the Pac-10, which is tough to do. I’m not saying the team is just giving up and doesn’t expect to win the conference, because it does, but there’s a difference between national expectations this year and a few years ago.
The Trojans are still putting their full effort into winning the AP national championship and the Pac-10 title, but the depth of the Pac-10 allows them to let someone else carry the conference burden. With that in place, the Trojans can now sneak up on the leaders and reclaim the throne that they lost.
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