Back in October 2008, I took issue with an AP pollster ranking USC 15th. No other voter had the Trojans lower than 10th at the time. And no one who knew anything about football thought there were more than five or six teams in the country that could even play with the Trojans.
My sense then was there was USC exhaustion, and even writers who were supposed to vote honestly were punishing the Trojans irrationally because they didn't like them.
So I found this article from ESPN.com's Pedro Moura interesting: Is there a dark cloud hanging over USC? One that exists, in large part, because some simply don't like USC and many more don't like coach Lane Kiffin.
And, with the latest iteration of that intersectional rivalry looming in four days' time, it's an interesting time to take note of the college football landscape and USC's place in it. The Trojans are 5-1, not having blown anybody out but having steadily built up the wins, yet they remain unranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history with that record.
Arizona State, for example, is 4-2, with losses to Illinois and Oregon, yet the Sun Devils are tied for 24th on the poll. Notre Dame itself is 4-2, with losses to Michigan and South Florida, yet the Fighting Irish have 20 more votes than the Trojans and are just the second team outside the rankings.
There exists mounting evidence that the nation as a whole reserves some sort of bias for USC in the current college football world -- deserving or not.
Here are the national polls from this week.
In 2008, I looked at the national polls -- and individual ballots -- and, after reviewing some of the teams ranked ahead of USC, said, "No way."
I don't do that today.
Oh, I can see four or five teams I'd pick the Trojans to beat, but there's no sense of certainty as there was in 2008. And nobody you'd give 10 points to. I ranked USC only 24th this week in my vote for the ESPN.com power rankings, so I'm obviously not sold on the Trojans either.
USC's best win was over 4-2 Syracuse 38-17. It nearly lost to a terrible Minnesota team at home. It got pounded late by Arizona State. It nearly blew a big lead to Arizona.
Still, 5-1 is 5-1, particularly against a schedule that only features teams from AQ conferences.
So I do agree with the dark cloud idea, which emerges from three things: 1. Folks hated USC's dominance of college football under Pete Carroll; 2. Horribly unfair NCAA sanctions are widely misunderstood by fans who incorrectly believe the Infractions Committee found widespread corruption; 3. Lane Kiffin.
College football is a beauty contest dictated by opinion polls, polls that often are colored by biases and emotion, as well as some ignorance. It's always been like that and there are no firm indications that it's changing anytime soon.
Still, winning cures perception illness. It can make dark clouds go away. If USC wins at Notre Dame, it will be ranked on Sunday. And if it upsets Stanford the following weekend, it likely would jump to or near the top 10.
And then folks would start writing and saying nice things about Kiffin. Those who didn't would look stupid. Or irrationally biased.
Of course, USC fans need to prepare for some cloudy days ahead. A program doesn't fair-weather the loss of 30 scholarships over three recruiting classes. Just not possible.