No. 1 can be a curse instead of a blessing


Maybe Three Dog Night was on to something with its 1969 hit song “One.”

The song presents a contrast to the value that being No. 1, regardless of how it is achieved, is of the utmost importance.

With lines like “One is the loneliest number” and “it’s the saddest experience you’ll ever know,” I can’t say I envy Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks when they come to town next week.

Sure, the 41-year-old lyrics were the basis of a song about broken hearts and the emptiness of falling out of love, but even for a team this university has no lost love for, I can’t help but feel a momentary smidge of sympathy. After all, it was not long ago that the Trojans stood atop the national polls, only to be knocked off by a lesser foe.

Not to discount the impressive season Kelly and his Pac-10-leading Ducks are having, but his team sits in the unenviable position of being the top dog at the least opportune time.

These words might be printed 10 days ahead of the Trojans’ clash with the Ducks, and they aren’t likely to stop you from jumping down from the walls of the student section should the unthinkable become a reality.

Nonetheless, as the lingering bye week forces all of us to continue to rest on the comfortable laurels of USC’s most impressive win this season, avoid defining the Trojans’ upcoming, Nike-clad conference foe by the scarlet number it has been forced to wear.

One glance at the numbers will tell you that Eugene, Ore., is a more desirable place to be if you prefer football prowess to a well-rounded education.

But beneath the one-sided stats, the eyebrow-scrunching numbers and the array of mathematical subplots, do not be enamored by the ranking.

Rankings at this point in the season are about as useful as citing Wikipedia in the bibliography of your essay.

No offense to the “reputable sources” that make up the committees that put out the weekly human polls, but in college football — a sport where fickleness and transiency are about as common as an undefeated team getting screwed out of the national championship game — labeling teams with artificial evaluations does nobody a favor.

Unless Oregon loses to UCLA this weekend  — which would mark the first such defeat for the Ducks at Autzen Stadium to an unranked foe since 2007 — it will be the third team in four weeks to hold the top spot when it comes to Los Angeles for a Pac-10 version of the Monster Mash.

If that isn’t enough to convince you stat-craving fanatics that the No. 1 ranking this time of year doesn’t mean much, then maybe a quick trip down memory lane will do the trick.

Going into Halloween weekend last year, No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Texas boasted the top spots in the rankings. Neither team won the national championship.

Texas and Alabama led the 2008 polls at the end of October. But come January, it was the Gators and Sooners who took their unified talents to South Beach for the Orange Bowl.

In 2007, the Buckeyes laid claim to the No. 1 spot at this point in time, but it was the LSU Tigers who ultimately held the crystal ball when the confetti came pouring down in New Orleans.

In fact, since 2002 there has been only one team who stood atop the AP and Coaches Poll at this point in the season (not counting USC’s now-erased 2004 campaign), and went on to win the national championship.

So to the idiot savants of the sports world, the lesson here is that rankings are trivial.

It’s the reason you couldn’t tell me who was No. 1 after the first 13 miles of the 2008 Boston Marathon or who was the last undefeated team in NCAA men’s basketball in 1997.

History is defined by these moments, big and small. Yet the numbers that summarize their significance are jammed into our almanacs, encyclopedias and, sadly, our tainted psyches.

We have come to grips with the fact that the majority of our statistical consumption is defined by this callous collection of data, but unfortunately this is the overwhelming problem.

Rankings tell a story; they speak to the immediate success of a team or individual, but in no way do they give us the whole picture.

In fact, at the end of the day, what do you remember most about a season?

Is it the number of weeks your team topped the standings or who raised the championship trophy that second Monday in January?

What shouldn’t get lost in my attempt to tear down the very fabric of college football is that Oregon, regardless of a numerical identifier, is a powerhouse program with a cavalcade of stars.

Quarterback Darron Thomas’ eye-opening season — 14 passing touchdowns while also leading Oregon to a nation-best 54.3 points per game and 567 yards per game — should be viewed with similar reverence as those of Heisman hopefuls and fellow duel-threat quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Denard Robinson. Accompanying Thomas in the Ducks’ backfield is the nation’s fifth-leading rusher in LaMichael James.

Combine those two gut-punching factors with a defense that led the conference in interceptions, sacks and the least amount of points surrendered up until their bye week this weekend, and the impending threat is apparent.

So to those of you looking to make your way to Los Angeles’ grandest athletic cathedral come Halloween Eve, should the Trojans somehow pull off their own Coliseum miracle, by all means jump with pride.

But do so knowing that a victory against the Ducks should be preserved for the sheer fact that it will mark a significant triumph over a high-caliber opponent, and not for how that opponent has been victimized by a system that chooses to aimlessly qualify Oregon with a meaningless badge of merit.

“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at dulberg@usc.edu.

Correction: 10/19/10: The print version of this story misspelled Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s name. The online version has been corrected to reflect the change