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07 Jan 2005
By Russell Levine
The magnitude of Southern California's 55-19 destruction of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl will surely dampen the voices of protest within the college football world about the legitimacy of its championship.
Though the players and fans of 13-0 Auburn likely disagree, they are the only group left that does not recognize USC's absolute supremacy over the college football landscape. After making such a statement Tuesday night, USC can no longer be measured against its current rivals nor even the great Trojan teams of the past, but against the great teams in the history of college football.
Consider USC's body of work the last three seasons: a 39-3 record, two AP national championships, two Orange Bowl victories, and a Rose Bowl title. And don't forget a pair of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks: Carson Palmer, the first pick in the 2003 NFL draft, and Matt Leinart, a fourth-year junior who could follow suit after claiming Orange Bowl MVP honors with five touchdown passes.
Those are the accomplishments of a dynasty, which USC now most certainly is, especially considering the scholarship limitations in place to prevent the top programs from stockpiling talent. And the ride is far from over.
The Trojans, with 16 of 22 starters potentially returning, are poised for a third-straight title next season. Leinart may opt for the NFL despite his stated desire to return, but another highly touted recruit, John David Booty, is waiting in the wings. Leinart or no, expect USC to be a near-unanimous no. 1 selection in the preseason polls next fall.
A third straight AP championship would be an unprecedented achievement. Can anything prevent what clever headline writers have already dubbed a three-Pete?
Certainly. For one thing, the architect of the program's reawakening, Coach Pete Carroll, might not be around for the attempt. Carroll, twice fired from NFL jobs, dominates the fertile Southern California recruiting ground and also attracts top talent from around the country. But Profootballtalk.com, a well-connected NFL rumor site, cited league sources in reporting Wednesday morning that Carroll is angling for a return to the pros, perhaps with the 49ers - a job that became available later in the day when Dennis Erickson was dismissed.
Editor's note: This article was published in Wednesday's New York Sun. Carroll denied any interest in the job Thursday, but the situation bears watching.
For all the fun Carroll appears to be having, it's hard to believe he desires a return to the pro game. Yet even if Carroll does elect to remain at USC, offensive coordinator Norm Chow is sure to be a highly sought-after commodity and could depart for an NFL coordinator's job or a college head-coaching position.
Chow, a guru who not only helped develop the two Heisman-winning quarterbacks, but also had similar success at BYU and North Carolina State with Ty Detmer and Phillip Rivers, makes USC an attractive option for the nation's top high school passers. He has received as much credit for USC's recent success as Carroll, and has interviewed for a number of college head-coaching jobs already. It's not difficult to imagine an NFL team like the offense-challenged Jets -- whose own besieged coordinator, Paul Hackett, was the USC head coach before Carroll's arrival -- knocking on Chow's door.
Should Carroll, Chow, and Leinart stick around, USC will be an overwhelming favorite to play for a third straight national title in its backyard in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Even if they depart, the new staff should be able to build on the foundation that has been laid and keep USC in championship contention for years to come.
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The Orange Bowl result still begs one question: Did the Bowl Championship Series have it wrong?
The answer is no. The BCS did what it was intended to do -- match nos. 1-2 in the championship game. By every measure and calculation, including the AP and coaches' polls and a host of computer rankings, Auburn was third.
The fact that Auburn and undefeated Utah, the Fiesta Bowl winner over Pittsburgh, had no shot at the national championship is not the fault of the BCS. The heavy criticism that the system endures is due mostly to what it isn't -- an all-inclusive playoff. Since there isn't one of those on the horizon, the BCS is the best college football has to offer. Some seasons, its methodology has put the wrong teams in the title game, but this year, it accomplished what it set out to do.
True, Auburn may have given USC a better game in the Orange Bowl -- it's difficult to imagine the Tigers doing any worse than Oklahoma. But it is just as difficult to conceive that the Tigers could have won, not against a USC team that was clicking on all cylinders.
Oklahoma was a worthy opponent for USC. The game just got away from them after the early rash of turnovers. Faced with a second straight BCS title-game disappointment, the Sooners responded by closing up shop. It's the same scenario that has created many a Super Bowl rout.
USC was clearly the superior team, but the Trojans aren't five touchdowns better than Oklahoma. Perhaps Auburn was mentally tougher and would have kept the game competitive. We'll never know.