Contrary to the opinions of most "experts," The University of Southern California will not win the national championship in football this season.
There are several reasons, most compelling of which is the narcotic of stardom. Teenage males do not handle it well. In this case, the elixir is magnified by next-door neighbor Hollywood. That is just the catalyst that will exaggerate two more immediate personnel concerns: the loss of offensive wizard Norm Chow and a more porous run defense. They will combine with the aforementioned potion, resulting in a loss or two. Overall, we will see a brilliant, talented team that falls just short of the prize.
Now, remember how you thought and reasoned when you were 19 ... then read the following. Try hard to imagine the headlines are about you and your best buddies:
"Doubt USC's dominance? Cue up the first half of that 55-19 smashing of No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, then get back to us." (ESPN The Magazine's Bruce Feldman)
"Arguably the Best Offense Ever!" (numerous magazines and papers)
"The Biggest Man on Campus ... Ever!" (FoxSports, referring to Matt Leinert, your quarterback, who is a great guy who figured out how to finish college with one class this semester, Ballroom Dance 101)
"What do you do with an offense that already has everything?" (Athlon)
"The Trojans are going for three with the nation's top quarterback, most electric playmaker and most dynamic wideouts. Who's to stop them?" (Sports Illustrated)
The words scream off the pages of preseason publications. They ooze into the unconscious minds of the teenaged males in cardinal and gold, blur their focus, and corrode the fierce spirits within -- eventually surfacing during games at the least propitious moments.
Of the seven national magazines I have purchased, every single cover features a Trojan. In the case of ESPN The Magazine, our cover has Leinert riding piggyback on a smiling Reggie Bush. It is wonderful metaphor but heady stuff! Those two or LenDale White adorn the covers of many more magazines that crowd the racks across the country. I bet there are more Southern California players per capita on and in sports publications this summer than any other team in the history of the sport.
At first glance, USC appears to have dodged the dreaded "Sports Illustrated Curse." SI's cover prominently features Florida's quarterback, Chris Leak. But as one focuses on the details, a red inset jumps out in bold relief. Its headline reads "SI's TOP 10," and begins with USC at No. 1, with a small picture of Bush near the top.
So, in the world of jinxes, do insets count?
No More Carrolling
Last December, I wrote an article regarding focus titled "Boldness of Leaders Drives Unbeatens." In it, I examined the reasons men such as Pete Carroll and a few others normally are able to keep their players' heads on straight despite myriad distractions.
Carroll does a very wise thing, not at training camp, not at the beginning of spring practice, but immediately following the conclusion of recruiting, in early February:
"Pete Carroll of Southern California has a team meeting each winter during which he shows tapes of the year's recruits. He then reminds the men that playing time will be allocated based on performance, and that there are no entitlements for upper classmen. He keeps the attention of his team year-round. They are desperate to play and they have no illusions about the ability of the competition on their own team.
"He does not say, 'Wow, you guys are great. Everyone will keep his position and we will continue to do well.' Leadership in Bold Strokes."
Big deal, you say. You say most coaches have some sort of motivational ploy to get the guys revved up for grueling offseason programs. What you say would be correct. Nothing unique about the above methods.
Here is what is unique. Carroll has played 40 true freshmen in the last three years. That, folks, is a mind boggling stat for any football coach, player or player's parent. It means that when this man says everybody gets a chance, everybody gets a chance. I have never seen anything to match it in college football.
It is the greatest of focusing methods, but it will not be enough this time. Even the redoubtable Pete Carroll cannot overcome the distractions and key losses.
One year ago the Trojans had a chip on their shoulder. In their minds, they had been cheated out of half the national championship by a flawed system. They were being told they could not overcome the loss of key receivers Mike Williams and Keary Colbert. Leinert had arm problems and played poorly in the early going. All of the above served to keep people's minds on their business.
This time, all they see and hear is that they are wonderful and unbeatable. Leinert is back, surgically repaired, better than ever, having delayed the NFL's big bucks for all the right reasons. When kids hear that often enough, no matter what the coaches say or do, they believe in their own invincibility. That belief alone is enough to take the edge off preparations. Combine it with the thousands of appearances, photo shoots, interviews, the bright lights of Los Angeles and you have inevitable distractions.
Do not misunderstand me. The preparation will be very good. It just will not be quite as good as it has been the last two years.
The debate about the worthiness of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian to replace the erstwhile genius, Norm Chow, will not be fully tested until the following kind of situation presents itself:
Tough game, Trojans with the ball, down 4, 80 yards to go, 1 minute, 43 seconds on the clock, temperature 103 degrees, Leinert exhausted, one timeout remaining, three offensive starters gone with cramps, hostile crowd, a good nickel defense sprinting on the field, ready to lay it on the line to break USC's winning streak.
It is here and now that Norm Chow's perspective and experience in the booth will be missed ... and it will make all the difference.
Defensive excellence against the run will be adequate until something like this:
Scenario # 2
Tough game against a good running team, defense on the field trailing by 1, 2:02 on the clock, no timeouts remaining, temperature 55 degrees, so fatigue is no factor for the physically inferior opponent; a stout offensive line with a massive fullback and a gritty tailback are jogging on the field to run the clock out -- and they believe they can do it.
It is here and now that Ed Orgeron, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson and Manny Wright will be missed ... and it will make all the difference.
Football really is a game of inches, and this year's inches will be enough to deny one more great team of a threepeat.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.