- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

It’s time for Southern Cal to take on history.

Starting with tomorrow’s season opener at Hawaii, the top-ranked Trojans are embarking upon a four-month quest toward immortality. The goal is a trip to the Rose Bowl, where the nation’s top BCS behemoths will meet Jan.4. The grail is the unthinkable — an unprecedented third consecutive Associated Press college football crown.

Since the advent of the AP poll in 1936, nine back-to-back bullies have failed to notch a three-peat. Despite heavy losses on the defensive front and in the coaching booth, this season’s Trojans look better equipped for the task than perhaps any of their predecessors.

“This current USC bunch is certainly on the short list when you start talking dynasties — they’re that good,” said ESPN analyst Bill Curry, who is entering his 50th season as a football player, coach and broadcaster. “That said, there’s a reason nobody’s ever won three straight titles. It’s just darn near impossible to keep 100 teenaged men focused for that length of time.

“I think distractions and ego are the reasons they won’t win it this year. Nobody else has ever done it — and those other guys didn’t have Hollywood right next door. Throughout the history of this game, without fail, anytime folks start talking about best ever, there’s a [licking] coming. I think they’re going to get beat at least once and maybe twice, but I can’t wait to watch how it all plays out.”

The arsenal

What “The Godfather” was to acting, USC is to offense. Seldom if ever has such an outrageous cast of talent and experience been assembled on the same side of the ball. The Trojans’ offense features a potential All-American at all 11 positions.

“We could be pretty scary,” said senior quarterback Matt Leinart, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner who passed up the likely top slot in the NFL Draft for a shot at the title trifecta. “We could score a ton of points.”

Leinart, whose only class this semester is Ballroom Dancing, shouldn’t need much fancy footwork behind a line that includes four returning starters plus massive offensive tackle Winston Justice (6-foot-6, 325 pounds), who was slated to be the next great USC trench titan before sitting out last season as an academic casualty.

Leinart returns for his third season in the pocket, where he has gone 25-1 as a starter and gained back-to-back Pac-10 Player of the Year honors thanks to 6,878 passing yards, 71 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions.

And flanking the 6-5 senior are all the team’s principal playmakers from 2004: tailback/flanker/return man extraordinaire Reggie Bush (2,330 all-purpose yards), bulldozer LenDale White and top targets Dwayne Jarrett (55 receptions, 13 touchdowns), Steve Smith (42 receptions) and tight end Dominique Byrd (37 receptions).

“Reggie Bush is the best football player we’ve seen in the college game in the last decade, in my opinion,” Curry said. “And Byrd just isn’t human. Guys that big [6-3, 260] just can’t have hands and moves like that.”

The only real subtraction from an attack that averaged 38.2 points last season is Norm Chow, the offensive maestro who left after the season to become offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Bubbly coach Pete Carroll replaced the iconic Chow with 31-year-old quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian (like Chow, a BYU product) and 30-year-old offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, son of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

“Losing Chow sent shock waves through the college football world,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “There are still plenty of skeptics out there, but I’m not among them. First, you have a senior quarterback who has total command of the system. And second, Lane Kiffin was sitting right beside Norm in the booth for every call he made over the last four years. I honestly don’t think they’ll skip a beat offensively.”

That’s a terrifying thought for defensive coordinators from South Bend to Honolulu.

“Better think prayer and bourbon,” quipped Colorado State’s Sonny Lubick, whose Rams found the wrong end of a 49-0 drubbing last season.

Perhaps college football hasn’t seen such a dominating unit since Alabama’s defense of 1992. Curry recruited that group, which gave up an average of just 9.4 points, capped a perfect season by humiliating No. 1 Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl and sent 10 of 11 starters to the NFL.

“Those were great people and great team players,” Curry said. “But physically they’re not in the same league as this SC bunch. It’s really not even close.”

The Achilles’

Aside from complacency, USC’s only potential downfall looks to be inexperience in its defensive front seven. The Trojans lost five monsters from that group since last year’s Orange Bowl: four All-Americans in tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson and linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Matt Grootegoed and a blossoming power in defensive tackle Manuel Wright (Miami Dolphins), who chose this summer’s supplemental draft over schoolwork.

Also gone is defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron, now the head man at Mississippi. Much like the role Chuck Amato once played on Bobby Bowden’s staff at Florida State, Orgeron was the Trojans’ firebrand, the growling baritone Rottweiler to Carroll’s grinning cheerleader.

“I think retooling that front seven certainly poses a potential pitfall,” Herbstreit said. “With three straight No. 1 recruiting classes, there is plenty of talent on hand. But Patterson and Cody were the heart of that team defensively.”

The schedule doesn’t allow a gentle segue into the scene for the front-seven newcomers. After the likely walkover in Hawaii, the Trojans play host to Arkansas (Sept. 17) before a nasty run that includes trips to Oregon (Sept. 24), No. 18 Arizona State (Oct. 1), Notre Dame (Oct. 15) and No. 20 California (Nov. 12).

With so much flux on defense, don’t expect a redux of the unit that led the nation in rushing defense (69.5 yards) and sacks (105) in each of the last two seasons. That said, the Trojans undoubtedly will be double-digit favorites against every team they face.

The pantheon

If USC does manage to pull off a three-peat, just where would the Trojans rank among the game’s all-time great dynasties?

At the top?

“They’d have to go right up there behind Leahy’s Notre Dame teams of the late ‘40s,” said uberscribe Dan Jenkins, recently named the College Football Hall of Fame’s historian emeritus. “A lot of people will tell you [Bud] Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams of the ‘50s, but they played a bunch of cripples. Leahy’s teams played everybody and never lost.”

Said ESPN senior writer Ivan Maisel: “If [USC] does it again this year, or even comes close, I’d slot them third all time ahead of Alabama in the ‘70s and behind Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams and Leahy’s bunch at Notre Dame. Wilkinson’s teams played at a higher level for longer than anyone ever. The results speak for themselves: 47 straight wins [between 1953 and 1957] is up there with DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak as one of the untouchable records.”

Curry: “If they pull it off, they’re on the short list with Oklahoma [‘50s], Notre Dame [‘40s], Red Blaik’s great Army teams [‘44-46] and the Nebraska teams of the ‘90s. I’ve always thought that Nebraska run was underrated. They had the ultimate confluence of scheme and speed. I still marvel at that ‘95 backfield of Tommy Frazier, Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green. This SC bunch would be in that kind of company.”

Herbstreit: “If they run the table this season, that will be 35 straight wins and three straight titles — and counting. That would be tops in my lifetime. And the scary thing is with Carroll there, I don’t see this thing ending anytime soon. He’s got the kind of energy and enthusiasm to keep pushing. He’s made SC cool again among California kids. Shaq’s gone. The Dodgers and Raiders aren’t any good. When you go to L.A. now, all you see is USC gear. They’ve taken over the town, and we could be right in the middle of something huge.”

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