Playing the underdog role

November, 15, 2011
11/15/11
9:42
PM PT
Every Tuesday morning, all of the Pac-12 coaches talk to reporters across the region for a designated 10-minute period on a conference call open to all conference media members.

Certain coaches -- Lane Kiffin, Chip Kelly, Steve Sarkisian -- use the full 10 minutes each week. Certain other coaches -- Jon Embree, Paul Wulff, Kyle Whittingham -- almost never do.

Tuesday, Kiffin learned how it felt to be a member of the latter group. Always the last one to go each week, he was asked just one question during his segment, leading the whole call to end before he was even due to start.

"That’s what happens when you’re 18-point underdogs," Kiffin said in response to the lack of interest. "Nobody cares about you."

He was joking, obviously. But there is something to be said about USC's underdog status heading into this weekend's game against Oregon. For quite some time under former coach Pete Carroll, the Trojans were never underdogs, no matter the opponent, no matter whether they were playing at home or on the road.

Now, they've been projected to lose a number of times in Kiffin's 23 games as the head coach. But they haven't been 14 or 15 point underdogs -- like they are this weekend, according to most sports books -- in a long, long while. Las Vegas Sports Consultants said it's been 14 years since a USC opponent was favored to beat the Trojans by that much in any given game.

Does that matter? Kiffin says no -- despite the fact that he brought it up, unprompted, during the conference call.

"Oh I don't know," Kiffin said earlier Tuesday to that very question, speaking to the media after the Trojans' practice. "Those things are wrong, right, whatever. I can see why it would be like that. Look at what they've done at home to almost everybody.

"It is what it is."

In fact, Kiffin spinned it off as a positive -- as in, the Trojans will have less pressure on them because of their underdog status. And there's some truth to that: It's typically easier to play under zero pressure than under a ton.

And USC has beaten the spread in each of its last five games, dating back to the October road win over Cal. Notre Dame was favored by more than a touchdown against the Trojans last month in South Bend, but USC won that game pretty handily, 31-17.

Kiffin brought that game up as an example of what being an underdog can do for a team.

"We've been pretty heavy underdogs a few weeks ago when we went to the Midwest so sometimes you can take it as motivation," Kiffin said. "Also, the pressure is off in those types of games. Like I told our team today, when we were here before with the great runs and the 34-straight, the pressure was always on us. We were the No. 1 team and we were the ones that had to play well to stay up there.

"So, a lot of times in these games, the pressure goes the other way with the team that's got a chance to go to the national championship still. We just go up there and have some fun and see what happens."

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