From Wine and Roses to Nuts and Emeralds: USC Searches For Motivation

Sam KlineCorrespondent IDecember 9, 2009

Now Trojan Nation knows how the other half lives.

Less than three months ago, USC fans were outraged about being ranked a lowly No. 6 in the AP poll. Now that the college football bowl season is upon us, Southern Cal must deal with the relative ignominy of being ranked sixth in the Pac-10 conference.

After the dramatic 18-15 victory over Ohio State in September, USC’s fresh batch of recruits were inspired to join a program during what was perceived to be the continuation of Southern Cal’s reign on the West Coast. Little did they know they would spearhead a rebuilding effort.

USC has had an impressive run of four consecutive Rose Bowl appearances coupled with their streak of at least a share of seven consecutive Pac-10 titles. That said, one didn’t have to be a psychic to predict that, Senior Night aside, the Trojans wouldn’t be fired up for a game that would result in, best case scenario, a late-December trip down to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl.

While Southern Cal received an invitation to play in the postseason, they’ll have to instead motivate for the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 26 more than they did for their 21-17 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats at the Coliseum last Saturday.

For Trojan Nation, the Holiday Bowl may as well be the Emerald Bowl, which may as well be the Toilet Bowl. Nothing less than a BCS Bowl game will be relished or remembered by Southern Cal, its alumni, or its fanbase, which had all become quite spoiled by the success during the Pete Carroll era.

Arizona needed Saturday’s victory over USC to continue to build confidence in their upstart program much more than USC needed to play in the Holiday Bowl. College football isn’t always about talent as it is about having the necessary desire to win, and the Wildcats proved this on Saturday.

The 80,000 Trojan fans, most of whom sat on their hands almost all night, seemed like they could have cared less if ‘SC lost.

USC’s players and coaches will probably say all the right things with regards to staying motivated for a third-tier bowl game in the days leading up to the Emerald Bowl. Their play on the field against a formidable opponent in Boston College, also 8-4, will help to determine whether Trojan fans should feel confident or worried headed into 2010.

But at the same time, don’t be too shocked if Southern Cal lays an egg the day after Christmas. This isn’t the climactic postseason matchup they signed up for.

Regardless of motivation or the outcome of the Emerald Bowl, USC needed a wake-up call. Given that six of 10 conference opponents registered winning percentages of .667 or better in 2009, the PC-10 playing field has been somewhat leveled this year.

Whether this conference-wide improvement is a one-year fluke or a sign that times on the left coast have changed, the conference schedule will be tougher than recent years. These are not your father’s Huskies, Beavers, Wildcats or Cardinal. That said, ‘SC fans have a few reasons for optimism in the next couple years. 

QB Matt Barkley will not only have a full season of experience under his belt headed into 2010, but he’ll also be hungry to prove that this four-loss season was merely an aberration in the Trojans’ storied history. 

Furthermore, the true freshman will be at USC for at least two more years, barring the possibility of a Sanchez-esque one-and-done tour of duty. As a sophomore, Barkley should be bigger, stronger, and better prepared with a chip on his shoulder for the Trojans’ 2010 cupcake non-conference schedule.

Instead of facing an early-season test that could affect their performance in subsequent matchups (read: Ohio State followed by a loss at Washington), Southern Cal will open their season at Hawaii followed by a home game versus Virginia before they continue with their regular Pac-10 schedule.

Factor in a rebuilding Notre Dame that just fired its head coach and lost its two marquee players on offense, and the Trojans face a weak non-conference schedule in 2010. Of course, the downside to an easy schedule, when coupled with the requisite east-coast bias, is a season under the national radar for USC.

A BCS championship run may have to wait until 2011, but at least the current coaching staff should be kept in place for one more year.

When you’re on top of the world, everyone wants a piece of you. This maxim applied to the Southern Cal coaching staff during the peak of the Carroll era a few years ago. After Norm Chow, Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin, and a handful of valuable coordinators and assistants departed USC during the glory years for lucrative offers at other schools, Carroll’s staff became a shell of recently-promoted underlings.

While a lack of attrition may be but a small consolation for a down year, at least the Trojans’ staff seems to be intact for 2010 without anyone getting poached by other schools.

An offseason of coaching and development with 2009’s freshman class, as well as the recruitment of the incoming 2010 freshmen is a good start for next season. Also, Carroll needs to instill a better sense of stability within his coaching infrastructure, which should also help to rebuild the program’s chemistry.

Southern Cal may not be a top-25 team anymore, but everyone within the program will do everything they can to help USC prevent another plummet down the polls. Now that this unranked program has tasted the tartness of mediocrity for a season, everyone in Trojan Nation knows there is nowhere to go in the AP poll and BCS standings but up.