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Thursday, December 18, 2008
USC season review

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

A seventh consecutive Pac-10 title. A seventh consecutive BCS bowl berth. Expectations of a seventh consecutive top-four finish in the national rankings.

What's not to like about USC's season?

Well, most everyone associated with the program, as well as a significant percentage of objective college football observers -- such as the fine folks in Las Vegas -- believe the Trojans are the nation's best team.

But USC will be playing in its fifth Rose Bowl in six yars because it lost at Oregon State on Sept. 25 and the Pac-10 didn't offer the perceived strength to allow the Trojans to climb over other one-loss teams into the national title game.

That's good news for two teams in Miami, but it leaves the Trojan faithful again ruing what could have been, particularly after expectations became stratospheric following the 35-3 beatdown of Ohio State on Sept. 13.

As it was, the Trojans failed to produce the necessary style points. They often relied heavily on a defense that was without peer in the nation -- it will go down as one of the best units in college football history -- that protected on inconsistent offense.

Of course, that inconsistent offense rolled up 453 yards and 38 points per game.

Turning point: Obviously, everything hung on the 27-21 loss at Oregon State. Only one other team -- Arizona -- managed to stay within a touchdown of the Trojans thereafter, but there weren't enough marquee matchups over the final nine games of the season to reposition the Trojans in the national title hunt.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Mark Sanchez ranked 13th in the nation in passing efficiency, throwing for 2,734 yards with 30 touchdown and 10 interceptions, but many fans grumbled about him and the Trojans offense. Talk about exacting standards. But he'll be a leading Heisman Trophy candidate if he returns for his senior season and doesn't enter the NFL draft.

Defensive MVP: Considering linebacker Rey Maualuga was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, and safety Taylor Mays made numerous All-America teams, why don't we drop this one on linebacker Brian Cushing. Cushing tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks, and he ranked second in tackles with 66. He also had an interception, six pass breakups and a forced fumble. Moreover, his teammates call him a "beast," which is high-praise within the unit.

What's next: It's probably safe to pencil in the Trojans for an eighth consecutive Pac-10 title in 2009 and to include them on the short-list of national title contenders, even if Sanchez doesn't return.

USC just has more horses than everyone else.

That said, it's a road-heavy schedule next fall -- Ohio State, California, Notre Dame, Oregon, Arizona State -- and the defense loses a lot of big guns, including Maualuga, Cushing, tackle Fili Moala, linebacker Clay Matthews, safety Kevin Ellison and, most likely, Mays.

But the offense welcomes back just about everyone and there's so much young talent on defense that the unit figures to still rank among the nation's top 10.

In other words, what's next is much of what we've grown accustomed to during the Pete Carroll era.