It was a mere 5 short years ago that the University of Southern California hired their current football coach, Pete Carroll. As has been documented ad nauseum, Pete was not everyone's first choice and the complaints and fears were numerous. In 2001, the Southern California football program was mired in a world of mediocrity. It had been 5 long years since the Trojans had made it to the Rose Bowl and one began to wonder if they would ever find their way back. The BCS Bowl arrangements had been in place for several years and the Trojans had yet to make a single BCS bowl game. A whole generation of high school superstars had grown up without thinking of the University of Southern California in the same breath as the term college football superpowers. In fact, it was not that very long ago that a very highly sought local running back made the statement that he was going to fulfill his lifelong dream and attend FSU, Florida State University, so that he could compete for the national championship every year. (It sure is interesting how things have worked out, wouldn't you agree, Lorenzo?).
How things have changed in recent years. In the past five seasons, all the Trojans have accomplished is the following. They have won 34 straight games, they have produced three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners, they have gone to 5 consecutive bowl games and they have won three BCS bowls, two national championships and they have finished the last four seasons as the number 4, number 1, number1 and number 2 ranked team in the country. Sure, it would have been better to have beaten the University of Texas on January 4th for an unprecedented 3rd consecutive AP national title, but ending up as the runner up is hardly an embarrassment. Living here in Tennessee, I have been amazed as coworker and patient after patient have come up to me and told me how great the "Southern Cal" team is. To a person each one felt that Texas had one unstoppable guy who really got hot, but it was USC that had the most unbelievable offense ever. And folks, these are not SC fans I am talking about. These are Tennessee fans who watched the game because it matched two superb teams and they wanted to see just what it is that has me so engrossed. After watching Reggie, Matt, LenDale, Dwayne Jarrett and the entire offense, they now know. This offense was one of the greatest units ever. Unfortunately, the defense was a bit overmatched and Texas had a superstar of its own. In the end, all I can say is that this particular victory was not meant to be for USC.
I think that it is worthwhile to see how history tends to repeat itself before getting too worried about the future of USC Football. Two particular examples come to my mind when I think of next year and how things have transpired in the past.
First, I want to say that at least two USC squads will go down in my mind as amongst the most talented teams in college football history to not win a national football championship. The similarities between the 2005 Trojans and the 1979 Trojans is almost scary. First, both teams were immensely talented and both were coming off championship seasons. We all know about this team and its dream backfield consisting of two Heisman Trophy winners, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, and all world tailback LenDale White, a man many think would have been a Heisman contender himself had he been the featured tailback. Not to be outdone, the 1979 squad also had a dream backfield consisting of Heisman winner Charlie White; future Heisman winner Marcus Allen, and All American left handed quarterback Paul McDonald. Whereas the 2005 squad also had numerous other stars such as Winston Justice, Darnell Bing, Dwayne Jarrett, Deuce Lutui and Dominique Byrd among others, the 1979 team looked like a virtual college football and future pro football All Star Team as well. For those younger readers who don't know much about that 1979 team, here is a list of some of the stars from that squad: George Achica, Chip Banks, Joey Browner, Lombardi winner Brad Budde, Jeff Fisher, Riki Gray Ellison, Ronnie Lott, Bruce Matthews, Don Mosebar, Tony Slaton, Keith VanHorne and Kevin Williams among many others. The reason I mention this is simple. Many folks felt that there might never ever be a team with that much talent again. I suspect that the 2005 team actually matches up very well, yet ironically, neither team won it all, so to speak.
The second issue that I want to mention is that in very recent history, USC faced a very similar situation to what they are now facing. After the 2003 Orange Bowl, a very good USC team was faced with the losses of a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Carson Palmer, two tremendous running backs named Justin Fargas and Sultan McCullough, and the majority of its offensive line. To make matters worse, the following season would start out with a new, untested quarterback and the first game would be in the heat and hostile environment of an SEC opponent that had lost to USC in Los Angeles the year before, and would now have pay back as an added incentive. Does this all sound familiar? Next season, USC will have an entirely new backfield, though Hershel Dennis has been a starter in the past. The quarterback will be either untested Mark Sanchez or relatively inexperienced JD Booty, a guy who has waited his turn, much the same way Matt Leinart waited his turn. Following the 2003 Orange Bowl, the doubters were alive and well and the talk was that the next season would be a rebuilding year, Pete would have his cut out for him, expectations should be realistic and this and that. Well, we all know how that unfolded. Sophomore Matt Leinart and a host of other young, talented studs lead Southern California to the number one position of both polls at season's end and the victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl gave SC another AP National Title. So what is the take home message from all that? Am I saying that USC will overcome all the losses and win yet another national title? No, I am not saying that. What I am saying is that history tells out that one just never knows and strange things can and often do happen.
Let's take a brief look at what the future might actually hold. USC is going to have to replace many members of a unit I personally consider to be the BEST OFFENSE EVER in college football. Personally, I think that either Booty or Sanchez is up to the task of leading this team. This will be JD's fourth year in the system and he will have every chance to show his stuff this spring. Will he get it done? Only time will tell, but based on what I have seen and what I have been told, he has plenty of tools. Yes, he has shown a tendency to throw picks and that is of concern. However, he has had precious little time to play with the first unit over extended periods and I have faith that as his prime time minute's increases, his terrific arm and knowledge of the game will be a tremendous asset. And if he falters, the guy waiting in the wings is also more than capable of leading this team. Mark Sanchez was the Parade National Player of the Year and he is immensely talented in his own right. As for the tailbacks, one simply has to wait and see. First of all, nobody is yet sure who will be available. Hershel Dennis is coming back from knee surgery, but when healthy, he did start ahead of Reggie and LenDale. Michael Coleman and Desmond Reed are also coming back from various surgeries, with Desmond's being a very serious knee repair. If both are healthy, this is another tremendous group. Another wild card is the enigmatic Chauncey Washington. If he can somehow be eligible, look out. He is yet another guy who was reportedly ahead of both Reggie and LenDale early in their respective careers. If nothing else, Mr. Washington is a guy who keeps on plugging, no matter how difficult the obstacles. And of course, there are the incoming running backs. Nobody is quite sure who they will be, but it is probably a good bet the newcomers will include at least some of the following; Emanuel Moody, CJ Gable, Stephan Johnson and maybe Michael Goodson. Whichever guys sign, each will be given an immediate chance to COMPETE. After all, Competition is what Pete Carroll and USC are all about.
Perhaps the biggest question mark next season other than the backfield will be the offensive line. What could have been an unbelievable returning unit is being hit hard by early departures. The loss of Deuce Lutui was expected. The loss of Winston Justice was more or less anticipated, but the loss of Fred Matua is a huge, unexpected blow. It reminds me of last year's loss of Lofa Tatupu. The question is this. Will USC be able to rebound and put a talented and cohesive unit on the field next season? The answer is not yet known, but I am hoping that Coach Ruel will be up to the task and that he will be able to mold the returning guys into another masterful group. To be fair, it is not like the returning guys are without talent. Jeff Byers, Chilo Rachal, Kyle Williams and Drew Radovich should be more than up for the challenge, and there are also some other young guys to back them up. Perhaps the most intriguing name of all is Thomas Herring. This is one huge guy with unlimited potential. How soon he realizes that and finishes his rehabilitation and pursues excellence remains to be seen. One thing seems certain. This guy has as much physical talent as either Manuel Wright or Winston Justice and that is saying something.
The receivers, both the wideouts and the tight ends will be a position of immense strength next season. Dwayne Jarrett, Patrick Turner and Stever Smith are all returning. Chris McFoy has not yet made his plans known, but new recruits like Vidal Hazelton, David Ausberry, and Anthony McCoy should help sure up an already talented group. Fred Davis is a guy who keeps getting better and Dale Thompson is also a fine blocker. So long as the oline blocks, and the quarterback throws, things should be just fine.
On the defensive side of the ball, things WILL IMPROVE. The youngsters will be older, wiser and more experienced. The dline loses LaJuan Ramsey and Frostee Rucker, but the replacements should be up to the task. I really like Sedric Ellis and it's time for somebody to step up at the other DT position. Right now, that is a position without an obvious answer, but I am optimistic that one will be found by next fall. The linebackers should be "SICK' as one often reads. Guys like Rey Mauluga will be a year older, Luther Brown should be healthy, Brian Cushing will be older and healthier, Sartz will be back, Keith Rivers will be back and healthy, Kaluka Maiva is nails and the list goes on and on. And the defensive backfield, a position that looked like a MASH UNIT this season will be back and stronger than ever. The list of available studs is very long and it includes guys like Kevin Thomas, Kevin Ellison, Josh, Pinkard, Will Harris, Mozique McCurtis, Carey Harris ,Antwone Perez, Terrell Thomas and who knows which other recruits? One thing is certain, at least to start the season, the defensive backfield will not have a shortage of available talent.
So, is the outlook bleak for next season? Not to my eye it isn't. The talent is there. Sure the losses are huge. Some are also unexpected. On the surface this looks like a gigantic challenge for USC and Pete Carroll! Did I say challenge? Did I mention Pete Carroll? Is there any guy in college football who seems to like challenges more than Pete Carroll? Especially coming off a disappointing loss, is there anyone better to have leading a team than Pete? Yes, some assistants may leave between now and the time practice begins. So what? If one leaves, Pete will find another. That sounds callous, but it is what I believe to be the truth. With Pete on course to bring in yet another very highly rated recruiting class, and with the intense competitive desire to win and achieve excellence, I honestly think that if anyone alive can keep USC up at the top, it's Pete Carroll. My guess is that USC is a top ten team when all is said and done at this time next year. As the saying goes, only time will tell.