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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Southern Cal

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Southern Cal...

2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 11-2 (7-2 Pac Ten, Champion)
2003-07: 59-6 (37-5 Pac Ten)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 1 • 1 • 1 • 2 • 8
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (6 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
Rey Maualuga appeared to draw his strength in equal parts from his flowing Polynesian mane and his many-vowelled surname, before his MVP performance in the Rose Bowl sans the kinky locks made clear the source of his hard-hitting dominance: it’s gotta be the name. It’s gotta be something, because the kid brings the pain:

The guy’s like the Tebow of defense: I don’t know of any better player in the country.
And Now, Song Girls In Bikinis

Thank you.

(If that’s not your thing, or, like, you expected something substantive, just be glad it wasn’t Will Ferrell in a bikini. You have been warned).

*According to Rivals
What's Changed. You won't read much about anything else through August, but as I pointed out last week, USC quarterbacks these days tend to be USC quarterbacks: be it Mark Sanchez, Mitch Mustain, even Aaron Corp, the new passer is assuredly in the same big-armed, pocket-bound mold of blue chip predecessors Palmer, Leinart and Booty and will generate comparable numbers in essentially the same play-action-based system. A commenter in the afore-linked post noted that most absurdly premature lists for the Trophy Which Shall Not Be Named include an entry for Sanchez/Mustain despite neither having finished a season as a starter here or anywhere else, or even clearly established he's the Most Outstanding Player at his own position on his own team. But, you know, yeah, both guys were the legends of their recruiting class and the winner of the spring competition is automatically in that mix. Only the name is really changing.

That isn't the case in front of him, though, and if the golden child du jour is so much as second team all-conference material (to who? Rudy Carpenter? Jake Locker?), expect the blame to go straight to the very young offensive line. Sam Baker started all but two games the last four years; Drew Radovich and Chilo Rachal started every game the last two. With center Matt Spanos, that's well over 100 career starts lumbering gingerly out the door. It's still a very talented line, of course, and the good thing about the spate of injuries that helped temporarily stall the offense last year is that the new guys are not completely green: Butch Lewis, Kris O'Dowd, Zack Heberer and Charles Brown combined for nine starts in the shuffle, and are presumably the better for it. Given the relative midseason lull with various combinations of young `uns in the lineup, they should hope so.

What's the Same. The last two years were the lowest scoring since Pete Carroll's first year, 2001, but were still top five, championship, Rose Bowl seasons because the defense got back to blowing the doors off. This was especially true last year, when the SC D finished in the top six nationally across the board and lived in opposing backfields. In Lawrence Jackson and Sedrick Ellis alone, the Trojans are losing 19 sacks and 30 tackles for loss; add to that Keith Rivers, leading tackler the last two years. Ellis and Rivers will go in the top ten of the draft, Jackson in the second round.

Like I wrote two years ago: cry me a fuckin' river, Fauntleroy. The leftovers include three more first-rounders in 2009, Rey Maualuga, Fili Moala and Brian Cushing (since we're only talking front seven here, that doesn't even include likely early entrant Taylor Mays, a 6-4, 225-pound Greek god of a safety), and end Everson Griffen, who managed to get overlooked by Joe McKnight in last year's recruiting hype but racked up six sacks off the bench, made every all-freshman team, spent the first part of the spring scarring new freshmen for life and will make any forward-looking all-America team this summer.

If you're waiting for the other shoe to drop, uh, stop - even the new starters up front (Griffen, Kaluka Maiava at outside linebacker and Averell Spicer at tackle) have played often and project to the NFL. You can probably say the same about the rest of the two deep in two years. The only offenses that have really given SC any kind of trouble the last few seasons are of the spread variety, run with athletic quarterbacks - Texas in the `06 Rose Bowl, Oregon and Illinois last year, if you want to stretch it (the Illini did have 445 yards; their problems in the end were mainly defensive). The only possibility of seeing a top-end talent like Vince Young or Dennis Dixon running from a shotgun on the upcoming schedule is against Ohio State, if Terrelle Pryor defies all reasonable expectations, wins the starting job by the second game of his career and is ready to break out in the Coliseum. Even if that could happen, Jim Tressel won't let it - premature exposure to a group like this is liable to cause deep, lasting psychological damage, if not actual physical trauma.

Doom Arrives With A Limp. Go back to the 2006 preview linked a couple paragraphs back and you'll come across the notion of "the next Inevitable USC Tailback(s) of Doom," which, two years later, hasn't materialized. Not that there haven't been enough candidates, and it's uncertain to what extent the cyclical ebbs and flows of tight competition and nagging injuries have prevented any single member of the rotation of Chauncey Washington, Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, Emmanuel Moody, Desmond Reed, Herschel Dennis, Allen Bradford, Broderick Green and Marc Tyler from breaking out. In some of those cases, it's clear enough - Dennis and Reed were basically never healthy enough to get on the field with any consistency in their star-crossed careers; Moody was hurt after a promising start as a freshman and decided he'd be better off trying to steal carries from Tim Tebow at Florida. Gable got a few early carries but missed the rest of last season with a suspiciously vague ab injury; Tyler came into the mix off a broken leg and redshirted along with Green. Bradford played in every game but virtually never saw the ball after the first two.

UCLA vs. Everson Griffen: At one point, this looked like a mismatch.
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The rotation last year wound up an inconsistent mix of Washington, Johnson and McKnight, and though Washington led the team in carries and yards for the second straight season, his first team status always seemed somewhat de facto. In two years, he only broke 100 yards four times and was held to a pedestrian four yards per carry or less about half the time. The younger guys have been more exciting - Moody averaged a full yard more every time he touched the ball in 2006, a margin nearly matched last year by McKnight, and Johnson finished almost two yards better than Washington's `07 average - but not nearly as consistent. Washington had more carries than the top three youngsters combined.

With the Old Man in Dreds now out of the mix, the best guess based on the way last year played out is Johnson as pacesetter and McKnight and Gable, presumably healthy now, as versatile, situational daggers, the Reggie Bushes to Johnson's LenDale White, even if it's Bradford (6-0, 230) who best fits the punishing White role physically. To be clear, though, that's not a fair comparison. No single player in this galaxy of would-be stars has shined brightly enough to deserve that kind of expectation, much less two of them.

It's not an endorsement, but Johnson struck me last year as the most explosive and effective of the group; this is probably only because his best efforts (100-plus yards on sparse carries against Nebraska, Washington and Illinois) happened to be the SC games I watched most closely. In reality, the only really unique talent is probably McKnight's, but his particular skills, like Bush's, aren't suited to endure an every-down pounding between the tackles, especially behind an iffy line. He's probably going to play good bit of receiver. So it's a much smaller committee than last year, down from ten to six, but nevertheless, committee it is.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Read Scott Wolf's quick-hitting, wide-ranging, pull-no-punches Trojan blog for the L.A. Daily News, and you'll not only learn that Pete Carroll's favorite TV show is HBO's bizarre, kaput "John From Cincinnati." You'll also get a pretty clear sense of the daily turbulence of the quarterback derby. First, Mustain was locked in with the second team in last weekend's scrimmage. Tuesday, Wolf graded Mitch and Mark as equals, at three Euros apiece. But by Tuesday night, he was saying turn out the lights on this "competition":

For two weeks I resisted the constant temptation to say the quarterback competition was a charade although anyone who reads this blog probably figured out what direction the ``derby'' was taking. But it seems foolish to act like anything is up for grabs right now as Mark Sanchez clearly is the No. 1 quarterback.

Here's some facts for those following this race:

Sanchez got six series with the first team during Sunday's scrimmage. Mitch Mustain got two.

Sanchez practiced exclusively with the first team Tuesday. Mustain split time with Aaron Corp with the second team.

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said he did not anticipate giving Mustain more time with the first team during USC's next scrimmage on Saturday.

We will wait for the official word from Pete Carroll, of course. When (not who) he announces the starter is the only mystery left right now.
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So that's that, it seems. If the outcome that clear cut, the critically acclaimed drama "Mustain: The College Years" is destined to end in anticlimax - Mitch has one season after Sanchez's eligibility runs out in 2010, but with Corp and current high school junior Matt Barkley and whichever other teenage quarterbacking idol comes aboard in the next two years breathing down his formerly blue chip neck, he's just playing out his run for the draft scouts.

... on You Tube. Pete Carroll miked up for last year's Rose Bowl, on meth, as usual:

The closing (and surprisingly profanity-free) fracas is the best, though be sure not to miss the inappropriate personal contact by the potbelied equipment manager a little past the two-minute mark.

See Also: Combine "USC Greek Week" and "Playboy U," and the result is the most disappointing video of all time. ... A USC grad sings the Oregon fight song. ... And the end of last year's loss to Stanford. If you were wondering what happened there.

Best-Case. Obviously. Not to overstate the point, but USC has played 30 games against ranked teams since 2002 and it's record (26-4) is not the most impressive point of the portfolio. That would be the average margin of victory in those games, which is just shy of 19 points. Six straight BCS bowls is one thing; five blowouts is something else. The Trojans will be the unanimous Pac Ten favorite, again, and on paper only face one serious challenge, from Ohio State on Sept. 13. That's a home game SC will probably be favored to win, and the line may not creep below double digits again the rest of the year. This is easily one of the handful of elite mythical championship contenders.

Worst-Case. Three times in two years is a trend - every week is a major upset alert. With so much uncertainty on offense, this is not the kind of opening stretch that lends itself to any false starts, growing pains, etc.: at Virginia, Ohio State, at Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona State. Outside of OSU, that's not daunting on the "traditional power" scale, but all five were at least nine-game winners last year, which must set a new standard for the first month-and-a-half of any schedule. And that's not even the type of game SC has found itself losing; three of four shocking defeats the last two years have been at the hands of the aforementioned double-digit dogs. By hook or crook, Washington, Arizona and Cal all played the Trojans within a touchdown last year, and Notre Dame will be bouncing back with some as-yet-unknown level of vengeance. There's the whole Stanford thing last year, and Oregon State and UCLA before it. You can't take for granted any breathers here. A sputtering, one-dimensional or turnover-prone offense could find itself on the wrong end of another pair of upsets; if they're to the wrong teams, it could cost them the conference. It has to happen sometime - if Dennis Dixon doesn't take the Ducks' fortunes down with his bum knee later in the season, last year's loss to Oregon was the streak-breaker.

Non-Binding Forecast. The air of inevitability wafting around last preseason evaporated with the Stanford loss, but there's no reason other than hubris SC shouldn't start the season number one again, or that it should be expected to lose any particular game. If the reader is thinking, "Yeah, but you know they're gonna lose one..." which one? I'm the guy who wondered if we were seing the beginning of the end of the Troy dynasty last October, but it definitely did not look that way once the team was healthy again a few weeks later. In terms of personnel and consistent high end dominance, if not consistency, this is still the gold standard, so much so that talking about the schedule (other than Ohio State) is really beside the point. If they beat the Buckeyes, the only thing standing between the Trojans and the mythical championship game is themselves. You have heard this before. But I don't know what else to say.