- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

After nearly two decades of forgettable football, the Pac-10's flagship program has finally returned to the cusp of national prominence.

While most of the early-season renaissance publicity has been lavished on Notre Dame, another past power is rising in the West. Under second-year coach Pete Carroll, Southern California has bolted out of the blocks with impressive victories over Auburn and Colorado. And if the 11th-ranked Trojans manage to slip past No.25 Kansas State in Manhattan on Saturday, Carroll and Co. can officially declare an end to the depressing days of Southern Mal.

"You can literally feel that SC aura coming back," said senior quarterback Carson Palmer after the Trojans dismantled Colorado 40-3 in Boulder last week. "It's been a long time since teams feared this program, years and years. But if we go into Kansas State and take care of business, I think maybe people will start to notice. The Coliseum, the uniform, the name, the program maybe it will all start to mean what it used to on a national level."

From 1960 until 1982, from the time John McKay became coach until the time John Robinson first left the program, Trojan football was to the West Coast what Alabama football was to the Southeast virtually unstoppable. During that period, USC won five national titles (1962, '76, '72, '74 and '78) and 12 Pac-10 titles, making 11 trips to the Rose Bowl.

And no program has cranked out as many outrageous talents over a similar time span as USC, which produced 56 All-Americans and four Heisman Trophy winners during the span. From Mike Garrett to O.J. Simpson to Anthony Davis to Ricky Bell to Marcus Allen, Tailback U. had a Heisman winner or runner-up in the backfield nearly every season from 1963 to 1981.

The 1972 squad, which featured Davis, flanker Lynn Swann and tight end Charles Young, is considered by some the greatest college football team in history. Those Trojans finished 12-0, beat Oregon 18-0 in their closest game and decimated No.3 Ohio State 42-17 in the Rose Bowl.

But when Robinson left under the cloud of probation after the 1982 season, the program slowly eroded. Pedestrian coaches Ted Tollner (1983-86), Larry Smith (1987-92) and Paul Hackett (1998-00) surrounded an ugly return tenure for Robinson (1993-97), prized recruits began looking elsewhere and the Trojans simply couldn't keep up with tradition. The result was two decades of relative mediocrity in which the Trojans didn't finish one season in the top five of the final Associated Press rankings.

Predictably for a spiraling program, the last six seasons were the worst, as USC went 37-35 and failed to make a Rose Bowl or BCS bowl appearance.

"I think all SC alums have been somewhat disheartened by the state of the program over the last decade or so," Swann said this summer. "But I have a feeling that things are about to turn around."

Whether he was prophetic or simply an optimist, Swann's prediction is rapidly moving toward realization. Armed with a senior quarterback and his second consecutive top-10 recruiting class, Carroll's Trojans have passed the first two tests on the nation's toughest schedule.

"I think the key is that we're running the ball a little better, and that isn't allowing teams to focus solely on stopping Carson and our passing game," said Carroll after the Trojans torched Colorado for nearly 500 yards of total offense.

Few teams in the nation have as much balance or experience on offense as USC. Palmer is a dark horse Heisman candidate after completing 45 of his 62 passing attempts this season for 546 yards and two touchdowns. His two top targets are seniors, scatback Malaefou MacKenzie and burner Kareem Kelly. And the Trojans' tailback tandem of senior sprinter Sultan McCullough (5.0 yards per carry) and former Michigan prized recruit Justin Fargas (6-1, 220 pounds), give USC a nice speed-size changeup behind Palmer.

"We can hurt you in a lot of ways," said Palmer after the Colorado rout. "And I think Fargas is going to shock some people."

It should come as no shock, of course, that the Butkus-minded Carroll also has fashioned a superb defense. The star up front is sophomore defensive tackle Shaun Cody, the top-rated prep defender in the class of 2000. The senior captain and secondary anchor is strong safety Troy Polamalu, an All-American and finalist for the Thorpe Award. After holding Colorado to just 61 yards and four first downs, the Trojans' defense ranks first nationally in terms of yards allowed.

"Yeah, and if I see anybody around here beating their chest about it, there will be a scrap," Polamalu said yesterday.

Perhaps that attitude typifies the ultimate reason most observers feel this could be a program-restoring season for the Trojans. Unlike the various Keyshawn Johnsons who defined the Southern Mal squads of the '90s, this USC team seems to have more bite and less bark, more smash and less smack.

"Stars don't build dynasties, dynasties build stars," Fargas said last week. "The greatest thing anyone could say about any member of this team is that we were the guys who started the second dynasty. We want to put SC football back where it belongs."

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