Most coaches would prefer that their teams fly under the radar. The idea that their players are not getting the recognition they deserve creates an “us against the world” mentality that most teams thrive on.
At USC, this is most certainly not the case.
Arguably the premier sports team in Los Angeles, the Trojans have always thrived under the spotlight. Along with championships and Heisman Trophies, former head coach Pete Carroll brought with him a culture that was built on flash and swagger, evident by the throngs of celebrities, such as Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg (or should I say, Snoop Lion), that graced the Coliseum sidelines.
USC coach Lane Kiffin, an assistant coach during Carroll’s tenure, admitted this past offseason that he is at least aware of the importance of being in the spotlight. In an ESPN article previewing USC, Kiffin confessed that “Winning solves a lot of problems. But not a distant second, I think, is style. It wasn’t our defense that has Snoop on the sidelines. It was the Heisman Trophies. It was the offense. Offense is what fills the stadium. That’s what L.A. is: Win, and win with style. And they’ll come.”
Aside from being on an apparent first-name basis with Snoop, Kiffin had a point. USC is not afraid of the hype or the attention; the program wants it. It welcomes it. And at the beginning of the year, the team got plenty of time in the spotlight. The season-opening victory over Hawai’i was broadcast nationally on FOX, and local L.A. fans packed the Coliseum to watch the high-flying offense rack up 49 points.
The following week’s game against Syracuse was also broadcast nationally, this time on ABC, and drew a 3.3 Nielsen rating, second-highest among college football games that weekend. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley threw six touchdowns in that game and was featured prominently on that night’s edition of College Football Final as the unanimous favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
But all of that changed the following weekend. The Trojans got beaten up in Palo Alto, and once again the national audience was there to witness it. After the game, there was no Matt Barkley Heisman montage. In the days that followed, USC fell from No. 2 to No. 13 in the Associated Press poll, and the college football world shifted its attention elsewhere.
In USC’s next game against Cal, there were about 10,000 fewer fans in attendance at the Coliseum. The game was not even televised for all of Southern California, let alone the country. And to the best of my knowledge, Snoop was nowhere to be found on the sidelines.
It seems that the country has forgotten about USC, the team that was heralded by ESPN The Magazine at the season’s onset as the biggest threat to take the national championship away from the SEC. Losing a game, of course, diminishes such expectations.
But almost equally to blame has been the lack of style USC has played with. In its last two games against Stanford and Cal, the team averaged a mere 20.5 points and 384 yards per game, hardly lighting up the scoreboard. And with the team not playing last weekend, other teams took up airtime on nightly SportsCenter broadcasts.
Offensive juggernaut West Virginia’s quarterback Geno Smith has usurped Barkley as the Heisman frontrunner. In a recent poll, ESPN college football writers unanimously chose Smith as the leader, while Barkley plummeted to 11th on the list.
Or any number of SEC teams, four of which make up the top six teams ranked in the AP poll. Traditionally lauded for hard-nosed defenses, the conference has shown a penchant for high-scoring games lately, as in last week’s Georgia-Tennessee game, which the Bulldogs won 51-44. Top-ranked Alabama has also joined in on the offensive barrage, averaging 40.2 points per game this season.
And we can’t forget the sheer warp-speed quickness of conference foe Oregon, whose play and uniform selection oozes style and whose backfield boasts another Heisman favorite in De’Anthony Thomas — about as entertaining a player as you’ll watch this season.
Yes, there are plenty of other schools hogging the attention since the Trojans have been pushed off center stage. Even after the win over Cal, the team still only sits at No. 13 in the national rankings. But tonight, when the Trojans take on Utah in Salt Lake City, there are no other games on the schedule. The millions who crave midweek college football action have no choice but to tune in to watch USC as it tries to rediscover some of its swagger.
All eyes will be on Kiffin, Barkley and company, and the Trojans wouldn’t have it any other way.
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