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BIG PICTURE: SPECULATION AND DEMISE AT USC

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A disclaimer is probably in order: I thought USC would win the mythical championship at the start of the season, and think I was right to think so. I should say now that I saw it coming when I called the Trojans vulnerable, warned against "unbeatable!" hyperbole and questioned the lack of a go-to workhorse in the backfield, young receivers and a tendency to lose focus. But that’s not true: I compared doubting USC’s superior odds of winning the mythical championship to doubting the obvious greatness and influence of The Beatles, as self-congratulatory contrarianism with no basis in reality.

Again, I don’t think I was wrong to write any of that in August, and it won’t serve me any better to overreact now to that prediction’s untimely demise at the hands of an outfit I gave a zero percent chance of winning in Los Angeles and said was "not worth a second thought until it makes some kind of positive move on the field" after one of the worst seasons by any team in Pac 10 history. But this isn’t about one bad loss – it’s about recognizing a trend we’ve seen before, may be seeing again and acknowledging the reasons everyone missed it.

Miami 2000-05
2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Preseason Rank 5 2 3 3 5 10
Record 11-1 12-0 12-1 11-2 9-3 9-3
Avg. MOV 27.2 31.8 21.5 12.7 13.7 12.7
Bowl Game W Sugar W Rose (C) L Fiesta (C) W Orange W Peach L Peach
Post-bowl Rank 2 1 2 5 11 17
USC 2002-06
2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Preseason Rank 18 11 1 1 5
Record 11-2 12-1 13-0 12-1 11-2
Avg. MOV 15.3 22.7 25.2 26.2 15.3
Bowl Game W Orange W Rose W Orange (C) L Rose (C) W Rose
Post-bowl Rank 4 1/2 1 2 4

Miami is not the only comparison – think of the rapid descents of Nebraska, which played for four mythical titles in five years from 1993-97, winning three, and played for another in 2001, and Florida State, which also played in four championship games in five years from 1996-2000 – but the Hurricanes are the most apt: a historically dominant team fallen on hard times, rebuilt by an NFL refugee, burst back into the national consciousness with one dominant breakout season, bestrode the country over the next two/three seasons with seemingly monolithic championship talent, began playing closer games and taking scattered losses that were mostly ignored in public perception...and that’s where the big picture comparisons end, for now.

USC’s "descent," as it were, exactly mirrors Miami’s. Miami came storming back into the national picture in 2000 with a young team, like USC in 2003, that lost once and controversially finished outside the BCS championship game; in Miami’s case, the ‘Canes beat Florida State and finished the regular season second in both human polls, but lost its championship spot to FSU based on computers, where USC finished 2003 number one in both human polls but lost its chance at the Sugar Bowl to freshly-trounced Oklahoma. Off those respective disappointments, more seasoned teams thoroughly dominated in undefeated title runs (in 2001 for Miami, 2004 for USC) that ended in lopsided blowouts in the mythical championship game and no questions (sorry Auburn) about the national overlord at the end of the season. As heavy, undefeated favorites in 2002 and 2005, respectively, both programs were shocked in epic championship finishes, and bid adieu to the stars that had taken them there.


The end of the world as we knew it? Before we knew it?
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You can start looking for hints of decay in those final championship seasons – Miami had to come from behind and watch a field goal sail wide to win at Florida State in 2002, USC had to rally from an 18-point halftime deficit at Arizona State in 2005 – but it gets really interesting when you begin to think of John David Booty as Brock Berlin, especially as they left the same high school as the top-rated quarterback in the country two years apart, waited their turn behind a championship-winning all-American, and inherited a balanced system seemingly stocked with top shelf talent and primed for instant success. In 2003, Berlin’s first season as a starter, Miami wasn’t exactly cruising with disturbingly close wins over Florida, West Virginia and Florida State, but it was ranked second and on track for another title shot when it was ambushed in a turnover-heavy upset at Virginia Tech. The ‘Canes later lost another shocker by four as a double digit favorite at Tennessee. In 2006, Booty’s first season as a starter, USC wasn’t exactly cruising with disturbingly close wins over Washington State, Washington and Arizona State, but it was ranked third and on track for another title shot when it was ambushed in a turnover-heavy upset at Oregon State. The Trojans later lost another shocker by four as a double-digit favorite at UCLA.

It seems obvious now Miami was on its way to ruin, but it didn’t then: the ‘Canes beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl and began 2004 an absurdly talented team still ranked in the top five. It remained there until a stunning loss at North Carolina in October as a 22-point favorite. If there’s a doppelganger to USC’s loss to Stanford, there it is – on the Miami curve, SC is in 2004 and another year and a half or so from true collapse.

In Miami’s case, hindsight again tells us the loss to UNC didn’t happen in a vacuum, but was rather an early sign of serious cracks in Miami’s facade. We know the story from there: the ‘Canes rode talent and pride as far as it would last, which was roughly through the 2005 regular season, one that featured a tough early loss (at Florida State), an affirming win (27-7 at Virginia Tech), a truly deflating loss (at home to Georgia Tech) and a de-mythifier against a revved-up equal to close the year (40-3 to LSU in the Peach). UM began 2006 ranked 11th, but the kill shot was there in Atlanta, just as Nebraska’s had been in the 62-24 humiliation in Boulder the year before the Huskers fell off the map to 7-7 in ‘02 and Florida State’s had come in a shutout (yeah yeah, safety...the offense was shut out) against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to close 2000. All of those deflated teams suffered massive personnel departures, especially at quarterback, and have yet to recover.

One mre parallel: coaching departures. Miami lost Butch Davis, survived among the elite for a while, then eventually fell flat and had to jettison in-house successor Larry Coker amidst relative ruin. Nebraska lost Tom Osborne, survived among the elite for a while, then eventually fell flat and had to jettison in-house successor Frank Solich amidst relative ruin. Relative ruin came much more quickly for Florida State, which fell flat the first year after losing longtime assistants Mark Richt and Chuck Amato and eventually had to jettison in-house offensive successor Jeff Bowden. USC’s staff below Pete Carroll has changed dramatically: Norm Chow and Lane Kiffin have moved on to the NFL (for...wait for it...in-house successor Steve Sarkisian) and Carroll himself gave up coordinating responsibilities before 2006 for ex-Idaho coach Nick Holt.

We don’t know the story for USC, and, the way recruiting has gone there, it might be a totally different arc. Three stunning losses in a year and a half might be as random and untelling of doom as each would seem to be when taken by itself. Matt Sanchez and/or Aaron Corp and/or Mitch Mustain might be the towering pocket god top-rated Kyle Wright has never been. I don’t mean to suggest USC is not still very, very good. In old coaching culinary parlance, certainly Carroll still has the chickens.

I only mean to say that our perceptions are shaped by the recent past more than the present, and we typically hold on to them far too long in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, until something truly drastic happens to change them. Miami was a top ten team in the popular mind for at least a year after it had ceased to be so in reality, until it started last year 1-2 and was convincingly crushed by Louisville. After Nebraska lost two straight games by almost 50 points and its H*i*m*n-winning quarterback to end 2001, it still began the next season in the top ten, where it remained until back-to-back shellackings at Penn State and Iowa State.

Stanford may or may not seem that drastic to you – as of now, USC is still in the top ten of both mainstream polls and 13th in the BlogPoll, so very few observers are seeing impending crisis. Either way, it might be time to put the idea of goliath, dynastic USC out of mind in favor of merely good USC until we see some definitive reason for the former’s reinstatement.