USC's quest to capture the Associated Press poll flag is going the way of Wrong Way Roy Riegels.
The Trojans keep winning and retreating, losing six poll spots since debuting at No. 14.
It seems like every time Coach Lane Kiffin goes for two, the Trojans drop two, sliding from No. 14 to 16 to 18 to 20.
Two more wins and USC may end up in the NAIA poll.
Could it be backlash for the NCAA sanctions against USC last June?
Or, perhaps, a bad aftertaste resonating from Reggie Bush, who recently became the first player to magnanimously return the Heisman Trophy before it was ignominiously ripped from his hands.
Maybe Kiffin's picked-upon reputation and sourpuss sideline demeanor is subconsciously penetrating the voters' hearts and minds. (The Times, by newspaper policy, does not vote in the AP poll.)
USC can't play for the Bowl Championship Series national title this season, or even be ranked in the coaches' poll, so the AP avenue is the only road leading to Rome.
Are the nation's media pundits conspiring against USC? Or did too many voters simply catch part of the Virginia game?
There is, without doubt, some strange fluctuating going on.
Two scribes, Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News and Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald, had USC at No. 6 on their preseason ballots — some might argue too high for a team that finished fifth in the Pacific 10 Conference last season and is now on NCAA probation.
Hurt voted USC at No. 15 this week; Conroy torpedoed the Trojans to No. 19.
Victories against Hawaii, Virginia and Minnesota have cost the Trojans 13 positions on Conroy's ballot.
Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News has ranked USC at No. 23, looking up at James Madison (18) and Air Force (16).
Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman docked USC 10 positions, from No. 11 in preseason to No. 21.
However, Kirk Bohls of the Austin American Statesman has moved USC up four spots in three weeks, to No. 14.
There's always one oddball, right?
"Seriously," Bohls responded, "I just don't think there are that many great teams out there."
The people behind the picks say there is no conspiracy.
"I have dropped USC based on their play" — particularly against Virginia, Hurt said. "I honestly haven't given a single moment's thought to the sanctions."
Hurt cautions people shouldn't pay too close attention to polls in September. But did USC deserve to drop nine spots on his ballot?
"If USC should beat Stanford and Oregon, I would have no problem moving them back up just as quickly as I have devalued them," he said.
Conroy, of the Boston Herald, explained in an e-mail his drop of USC: "Because of the sanctions, the Trojans were a huge question mark coming into the season, but I decided to trust the talent pool and put them at No. 6. The Hawaii game was an eyebrow-raiser and the Virginia game was a red flag, so I dropped them."
How, though, could Wilner have James Madison, a lower-tier program, ranked five spots ahead of USC?
"James Madison's win at VaTech is a better result than USC's three wins, combined," Wilner explained.
He also noted that Hawaii, which played USC tough in the season opener, just lost to a very bad Colorado team.
"And winning at Minnesota," Wilner said of USC's most recent conquest, "only means that USC did the same thing South Dakota did."
AP poll voters seem more forgiving of other schools that have struggled to 3-0 starts.
Florida remains No. 9 this week despite a horrible opening effort against Miami of Ohio and less than scintillating victories against South Florida and Tennessee.
Wisconsin struggled mightily at home the last two weeks, allowing San Jose State to stay in a game it should have never been in, and then nearly losing to Arizona State, picked to finish ninth this year in the Pac-10.
Yet, Wisconsin is holding steady at No. 11 in this week's AP.
"Point taken on the Badgers," Hurt of Tuscaloosa conceded.
Hurt said he has dropped Florida, from No. 3 to No. 9.
Conroy has punished USC a baker's dozen in the poll but is holding Florida at No. 8. He says that's more a reflection of Urban Meyer's track record as a coach.
"If I'm wrong," Conroy said, "the schedule in the SEC will knock the Gators out of the top 10 in due time."
Cripe of the Idaho Statesman penalized USC 10 spots in three weeks in part because "they haven't looked good." The bigger reason, he said, is the unexpected emergence of schools like Utah, Arizona, Stanford, Auburn and Michigan.
"As I tell everyone who complains about my rankings, it will work itself out," Cripe said. "If the Trojans keep winning, they'll be back in the top 10 before too long."
•Boise State gets criticized for its schedule but has tried for years to get home-and-home arrangements with major conferences besides the Pac-10.
And the answer has been?
"There's no way," Boise State Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier said this week. "I've tried."