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Chris Dufresne / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

More painful lessons of the fall for Trojans, who never seem to learn

September 27, 2008|Chris Dufresne

Wait a timber-lodge, Mike Riley, Trojans-killer minute: USC wasn't supposed to lose to that OSU.

Ohio State . . . maybe.

But not Oregon State, the team that recently lost at Penn State by 31.

Now comes the hard part: "Now what?"

USC Coach Pete Carroll has another long weekend to offer "teachable lessons."

Maybe he'll learn some himself as he absorbs the undeniable truth that has become USC: Being so raring to go in nonconference Brent Musburger showcases and so absent-minded in conference games against the "little dudes" (Stanford, UCLA, Jacquizz Rodgers).

How did a trip to pick up a win turn into pick-up-the-pieces?

For a third consecutive season, an early defeat to an unranked Pacific 10 Conference opponent may cost USC a shot at the national championship.

Also, for a third straight year, there is still time to clear the blemish.

Losing at 25 1/2 -point underdog Oregon State on the eve of the first Harris Interactive Poll, though, was not good timing.

"They couldn't block Oregon State," incredulous Harris poll voter Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys executive, said Friday. "I was shocked."

Tom Luicci of the Newark Star-Ledger, another panelist, wasn't sold on USC from the beginning. "Considering this first Harris poll is supposed to be based on what we've seen, I don't think you can say that USC is a top-10 team at this point," he said.

Fran Curci, former coach at Miami and Kentucky and current Harris pollster, wasn't sure what he was watching Thursday night. "I think this really hurts USC," he said. "They never should have lost that game."

And Harris voter Blair Kerkhoff, who covers colleges for the Kansas City Star, chimed in that USC "came out flatter than a $700-billion bailout offer."

Ouch.

The Harris poll is part of the Bowl Championship Series standings formula that will determine the two national title game participants. The first BCS standings won't be released until Oct. 19.

Above everything else, though, the most important thing to remember about the BCS is that it's like the weather in Buffalo.

When you think it's moving left, it jags right.

USC is not out of the national title race -- not by any Yao Ming stretch.

In 2003, the Trojans lost in triple overtime at California on Sept. 27, dropped from No. 3 to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, and recovered to finish No. 1 in both polls and win a share of the national title.

In 2006, a loss at Oregon State on Oct. 28 dropped USC from No. 3 to No. 8 in the BCS standings, yet the Trojans made it all the way back to No. 2 and were playing for a trip to the national title game when they lost to UCLA, 13-9.

Last year, a stunning home loss to 41-point underdog Stanford at the Coliseum on Oct. 6 seemingly crushed No. 2 USC's national title hopes.

Two weeks later, USC debuted at No. 14 in the first BCS standings.

No way to recover from that, right?

As it ended up, USC would have gone back to the national title game had it not suffered a second loss, to Oregon on Oct. 27.

We've seen this BCS movie more often than we've seen "Caddyshack."

Last year, Ohio State lost at home in November to Illinois and made it back to No. 1, and Louisiana State lost its last regular-season game, at home, and won the national title.

There's a difference, though, for this year's Trojans.

"They've got a harder road," Brandt said.

Harris pollsters can't say for sure how far USC will drop until weekend games are completed. You might expect, though, a tumble into the teens.

Can USC climb back from that?

The Pac-10, which has taken a drubbing on the field and in the media, is going to be a drag on this USC mountain climb.

"Perception of conference strength could be the difference-maker if a bunch have the same record and the group includes the SEC and Big 12 champions," Kerkhoff said.

USC can also get pulled down by the BCS computers.

Brandt said he has moved USC into the category of "teams that can win the national championship but need outside help."

The other problem facing USC is lack of traction.

There is not a school left on the Trojans' schedule that is currently ranked in the AP top 25, although Oregon is on the cusp.

The BCS storm cellar door on USC isn't closed, but Auntie Em can't stand there waiting for Dorothy forever.

The Trojans have to win out and probably hope the Big Ten champion is Ohio State and the Big 12 champion loses twice.

You can bet Phil Fulmer's farm a two-loss SEC champion is going to get one of the championship game bids. But you can never, ever -- in a sport that combines heartbreak, belly laughs and decimal points to produce its champion -- predict how two more full months of season are going to play out.

Last year, No. 2 was the last place you wanted to be ranked. Six schools got there and then walked the poll plank.

Maybe this is the year No. 1 keeps getting blindsided.

All USC can do now is win. And wait.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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