Ted Tollner was asked recently to comment on his roller coaster-type record since he became USC's football coach in 1983.
Tollner doesn't believe that he has necessarily been on any wild ride, saying that the dips and peaks aren't as severe as perceived by some people.
USC was 4-6-1 in 1983, then rebounded to 9-3 and a victory in the Rose Bowl in 1984 before flattening out to 6-6 last season.
"It's a fine line from being 5-3 and finishing fourth in the league as we did last year to 6-2 and winning it as UCLA did," Tollner said. "People would like to make it a drastic difference, but it isn't."
But Tollner is aware that the so-called fine line has a cutting edge. The Trojans are expected to finish with an 8-3 record, at least, every season. Even though those expectations aren't always realistic, that's the legacy he has inherited from his predecessors, John Robinson and John McKay.
There has been conjecture that Tollner will have to meet those expectations this year to keep his job. There haven't been any mandates from Athletic Director Mike McGee's office, but the atmosphere at USC's Heritage Hall is charged with speculation.
"We don't dwell on the what ifs and what you have to do," Tollner said. "We think we have a football team that is capable of winning and we're going to do everything we can to become a winning team and not concern, or waste time on areas that we don't control."
USC was not among the nation's top 20 teams in the preseason wire service polls. Nor, are the Trojans getting much support in other polls regarding the conference championship.
"Where we are being picked has no bearing (on the season)," Tollner said. "We found that out a year ago, when we were picked to win and finished where we did, and two years ago, when we were not picked to win and we did.
"We think we can be an improved team that has a legitimate chance to win the Pac-10 championship."
That improvement is anticipated by Tollner in several areas:
--The apparent rehabilitation of sophomore Rodney Peete, a mobile quarterback, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in last December's Aloha Bowl game.
--More productivity from tailbacks Ryan Knight and Aaron Emanuel.
--A defense that is experienced in 8 of the 11 positions.
--And, a split backs formation that will augment the traditional I and single back alignments, providing more diversification to the offense.
"The biggest change in what we're attempting to do offensively is involve our backs as receivers in the split backs formation and (increase) the flow or movement of our quarterback whether it is bootlegs, or sprint outs," Tollner said. "We believe that Rodney Peete is outstanding as both a straight back-type passer and a flow guy.
"We still want to be a run-power team, that is still our basic premise offensively. We want to control the line of scrimmage in addition to the other things.
"Defensively, we're very experienced at linebacker and in the secondary. I think we can be as good as anybody in the conference on defense.
"Our concern on defense is our defensive line. I think we have talent, but it's unproven, inexperienced youth. Redshirt freshmen and sophomores and one junior will play there.
"Our kicking game should be improved. Don Shafer, our placekicker, has a much stronger leg than he did a year ago and Chris Sperle, our punter, is a year stronger.
Tollner says he is not flaunting tradition by adding other offensive elements to USC's traditional I formation. USC was ranked only sixth in the Pacific 10 last season in total offense, and the Trojans stagnated when they couldn't even score a touchdown in four games.
"We don't think we can be as successful as we want to be staying in the I 100% of the time," Tollner said. "We think there are too many restrictions in the passing game. We also don't feel we are physically that much more talented than the teams we have to beat. Now it's a matter of whether we can diversify and execute."
Tollner said the Trojans will be in the I formation about 40 to 50% of the time and that percentage could be increased if Knight or Emanuel display the flair of USC tailbacks of other years.
"In the I you have to have a great back and a very physical offensive line," Tollner said. "If you just four-yard a team with an average back, you're going to make a mistake. You have to have a guy who'll get you 30, 40 and 50 yards once in a while because you're not going to get it from any other phase.
"We may find out as Ryan and Aaron develop into their careers, they'll start making those long runs that we haven't had in the last three years and we may run more I. But right now, we think they'll make more big runs if we take the heat off them by getting into some other formations. I'll be flat shocked if we don't have a tailback run of more than 30 yards, which we didn't have last year. I think they'll be more productive people as we force our opponents to defend more things."