Can USC get off the canvas?

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
1:20
PM ET
BarkleyBob Stanton/Icon SMIMatt Barkley and the Trojans must now look to rebound after being upset by Stanford.
The good news is there's no longer a need to regurgitate comparisons between USC in 2012 and USC in 2005. In 2005, the Trojans beat Stanford by 30. In 2012, the Cardinal forced a fourth-quarter tap out.

The 2005 team went undefeated in the regular season and lost an epic clash with Texas for the national title. The 2012 team got pushed around in Game 3.

While USC's turnovers and penalties were notable at Stanford, they were only foot-notable. The primary narrative was how USC got whipped on both lines, most obviously in the fourth quarter when the screws tightened. Stanford asserted itself and the Trojans wilted.

There are many ways to lose, and some losses are easier to rationalize. Last year, Oregon opened with a loss to LSU. Sure, there was a false narrative -- LSU dominated those gimmicky Ducks! -- but the true narrative was Oregon played sloppily and LSU did not. You can rationalize a sloppy loss because you can envision corrected mistakes and better ball security.

It's more difficult to rationalize USC's loss to Stanford. Yes, the absence of center Khaled Holmes, maybe the best offensive lineman in the conference, was significant. Still, if you came to the game with no preconceptions, you'd be hard-pressed to imagine how the Trojans might reverse the scoreboard in a rematch.

But the purpose here is not to read the entrails of the Trojans' 21-14 defeat that knocked them from No. 2 to No. 13. It's to consider the present and to speculate on the future for USC in 2012.

The present is a test of the Trojans' heart and backbone. It starts with the leadership of Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff, then trickles down to quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald, the guys who came back as seniors to take care of "unfinished business."

The point A after the loss, however, was a USC failure. The Trojans' postgame despondency, particularly Barkley's, was perfectly understandable. It was normal. But exceptional people, the sorts who are supposed to lead great teams, don't do despondency. They don't do feel sorry for yourself.

Don't hate me for going here, but this is what you do.

Yeah, I pulled out Tim Tebow's news conference speech after Florida's embarrassing 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 27, 2008. While I know Tebow is a Rorschach test in this country, what can't be denied is his ability to inspire those who compete beside him, who wear the same uniform.

My expectation is Barkley, after regaining his composure, will deliver a similar message to his teammates. The message is this: We will get back to work. We will rededicate. We will fight with everything we have to get everything we can from this season. And if we do this, good things will happen.

The interesting thing about USC's present state is it could actually become something better than the sparkly version everyone -- yeah, me -- was selling in the preseason. Or at least more interesting.

If the Trojans had rolled through the season effortlessly dashing by everyone because of pure talent, finished unbeaten and won a national title, then they would have been celebrated for being gifted and extraordinary. That's all well and good. But that's antiseptic greatness, buffed and preening and privileged.

This is America, though, and we love a winner with a black eye. A winner who's spilled a little blood. A winner with a backstory.

Stanford delivered a TKO with the entire nation watching. Now USC, so super-fancy and skilled, looks effete, overrated and spineless. Defeated. And a little whiny. Much of the nation cackles about this.

But here's the reality, if the Trojans are willing to embrace it: It ain't over. The Pac-12's early-season success, in fact, provides a boost.

Let's say USC rolls through the rest of the regular season and finishes 11-1. That would include wins over four teams that are presently ranked: Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame. The Trojans would then play in the Pac-12 title game, we'd guess against the highly ranked Oregon-Stanford winner.

A rematch with the Cardinal could provide redemption. But beating the Ducks, a potentially top-five team, also would bolster the résumé.

In that scenario, the odds are fairly decent the Trojans would be in the thick of the national title debate, at least as the nation's top one-loss team. It's possible that the top alternative would be the LSU-Alabama loser on Nov. 3, and the potential for a second consecutive SEC West rematch for the title might inspire so much national revulsion that the Trojans would be finagled into the title game just to avoid that.

A lot can and will happen in a college football season. Lots of chapters left in this whodunit.

Of course, this is all speculative fan and media talk. The gist could be quickly noted in the USC locker room -- "We're not out of this!" -- but the only focus within Heritage Hall should be on correcting mistakes, tightening the collective chin straps and getting ready for California on Saturday.

The secondary narrative coming out of USC's loss to Stanford was Barkley's struggles. Sure, he was under constant pressure. But he played poorly. So folks are writing him off for the Heisman Trophy and speculating negatively on his NFL draft status.

But just as America loves a team that gets off the canvas and redoubles its efforts, so does the NFL love a player who comes back stronger after his darkest moment. Barkley actually could end up rated higher by NFL scouts based on what happens next than if the Trojans had rolled through the season. He now can provide an affirming check mark in the box for "Comes back strong from adversity."

Or he won't.

The same can be said, by the way, for Kiffin. Now his coaching isn't just about collecting talented players and sending them out to make plays. It's about leading them back from the brink after everyone wrote them off.

Mixed in with the preseason celebration of USC's 2012 potential was the caveat of a "small margin for error." That often buried expression of caution started with a lack of depth, particularly on both lines, and how injuries could derail things. The ensuing trickle of injuries already has been notable.

The second part of the "small margin of error" talk was the belief it was "national title or bust" for the Trojans. The idea was an unexpected loss could send things haywire.

It would seem the popular expectation now is the Trojans will not get back on their feet.

But, as Tebow said, maybe a lot of good will come out of this.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

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