It was shocking to watch USC, college football's preeminent program since 2002, crumble during the season's home stretch, losing three of its final five games.
Sure, the schedule was brutal -- probably the nation's toughest. And the Trojans did have to replace their quarterback as well as eight starters from one of the best defenses in college football history. And they did suffer through significant injury issues throughout the season.
Still, this is USC, a program that had gone 6-1 in BCS bowl games under Pete Carroll, the lone defeat coming in a thriller with Texas when it was seeking a third consecutive national title. This was the program that struck fear in all others because it was bigger, faster and better than anyone else.
In the fourth quarter at Oregon on Halloween night, that notion disappeared. And when Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh went for two with a 27-point lead late in the fourth quarter, it seemed as though a dynastic run was over and some wanted an opportunity to dance on the ruins.
A large part of the problem for USC was an unforgiving, deep Pac-10. While the Trojans still could win at Ohio State and Notre Dame, they only managed a 5-4 record in conference play.
True freshman quarterback Matt Barkley started the season looking like the "outlier" Carroll gleefully claimed him to be. By the end of the season, however, he probably ranked sixth -- at best -- in the conference's quarterback pecking order.
The defense also started out dominant but faltered over the season's second half.
Now the Trojans, who in recent years yawned at the prospect of another Rose Bowl, head off to the Emerald Bowl with the hopes of rediscovering their mojo.
Offensive MVP -- Receiver Damian Williams.
Williams was the Pac-10's second-leading receiver with 74.5 yards per game, and its second-leading punt returner with a 16-yard average per return. He caught six touchdown passes among his 58 receptions for 821 yards and returned two punts for touchdowns.
Defensive MVP -- Safety Taylor Mays.
Mays didn't have the season he wanted to -- as an individual and as a Trojan -- but it wasn't nearly as bad as some of his critics have made it out to be. Mays led USC and ranked second in the Pac-10 with 8.27 tackles per game. He also had an interception, four pass break-ups and a fumble recovery.
Turning point -- USC only trailed Oregon 24-17 at halftime, but the Trojans haven't been the same team since being outscored 23-3 in the second half in Autzen Stadium. That was the first of three defeats in five games and the point in which the Trojans' offense starting going south.
What's next -- The question that will hang over the Trojans this offseason is simple: Is this the end or merely a blip for the USC dynasty? Carroll needs to review a lot of areas, not the least of which is a coaching staff that didn't do a very good job this season. The schedule is far more manageable in 2010 -- the Trojans' stretch of six of eight on the road was the toughest any team in the nation faced this season -- and that should help. Still, there will be significant holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and it no longer appears that USC can simply reload and roll, particularly in the deep Pac-10.