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A "Three-Pete" for USC in 2005?

   by Larry Ness - 07/26/2005

(third of a nine-part CFB series)

Head coach Howard Jones led USC to glory in the early years and then John McKay came along to win three AP national titles (1962, 1967 and 1972) plus an UPI title in 1974. John Robinson captured a UPI title in 1978 and the following year, just missed out on a second consecutive national title, finishing 11-0-1 and behind only No. 1 Alabama (12-0-0) in both polls. During that stretch, the school earned the nickname "Tailback U" as RBs Mike Garrett (1965), OJ Simpson (1968), Charles White (1979) and Marcus Allen (1981), all won Heismans!

While USC remained a football presence on the national scene from 1980 through 1995 with 12 bowl appearances in 16 seasons, only the 1988 team won as many as 10 games and only the 1988 (7) and 1989 (8) teams finished the year ranked among the AP's final top-10!

Over the next five seasons (1996-2000), Trojan football fell on hard times. The school failed to post a winning record in three of those six seasons, going 31-29 overall, with just ONE bowl appearance (an embarrassing 28-19 loss to TCU).

After firing Paul Hackett after the 2000 season (was 11-13 in two years), USC brought in unheralded Pete Carroll as its new head coach. Carroll's career didn't exactly get off to a great start, as the 2001 team opened 2-5. USC did finish the regular season with four straight wins, but ended the year with a 10-6 loss in the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah, to finish the at 6-6.

USC sat at 3-2 through 2002's first five games but a 30-28 home win over Cal, sparked an eight-game winning streak (covered the season's final seven games, winning by an average of 23.9 PPG!) that ended with a 38-17 rout of Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Carson Palmer won the school's fifth Heisman Trophy that year, but the FIRST by a QB!

USC's domination over the last two seasons has put this team in a position to claim status as one of college football's best-ever! USC's only loss over the last two years, was a 30-28 triple-OT game at Cal, in 2003's fourth game. USC finished the 2003 regular season ranked No. 1 in both human polls but was left out of the BCS title game, in what became a major controversy. However, the Trojans beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl that year, claiming the school's fourth AP title.

USC opened 2004 as the AP's preseason No. 1 and became just the second school in NCAA history (Florida State in 1999 is the other), to go wire-to-wire as the AP's No. 1-ranked team. USC finished off the school's first undisputed national championship season since 1972, by routing Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, 55-19. Matt Leinart won the school's sixth Heisman and USC enters the 2005 season with a nation's-best 22-game winning streak!

Going back to the team's 8-0 finish to the 2002 season, USC has won 33 of its last 34 games, going 26-8 ATS. Over its 22-game winning streak, the Trojans are 17-5 ATS and also enter the 2005 season with a 21-game home winning streak. USC has won 16 of those 21 home games by 20 points or more, sporting a 16-5 ATS mark.

Since the media polls began in 1936, no school has been able to capture three consecutive national titles. USC is in a position this year, to change that fact. However, before getting to USC's chances in 2005, let's look back at those that have tried and failed in the past.

Bernie Bierman's Minnesota Golden Gophers won consecutive national titles in 1940 and 1941 (8-0 each year) but came up way short in 1942, finishing at 5-4. Just a few later, Army's great teams led by Blanchard and Davis (head coach was the legendary "Red" Blaik) went 9-0 in both 1944 and 1945 to capture back-to-back titles. The Cadets lost a close (controversial ?) vote in 1946 to Notre Dame. Army and Notre Dame played to a 0-0 tie that season but the 8-0-1 Irish were voted No. 1 over No. 2 Army, which finished 9-0-1.

That 1946 title catapulted Notre Dame to an incredible four-year run under coach Frank Leahy. Notre Dame was again named the year's No. 1 team in 1947 (see my previous article for that season's fantastic finish), finished No. 2 in 1948 to Michigan (the school that had finished No. 2 in 1947) and won a third title in four year (but NOT three straight!), by going 10-0 in 1949. The Irish had a four-year record of 36-0-2 from 1946 through 1949 and won two Heismans (Johnny Lujack in 1947 and Leon Hart in 1949).

The great Oklahoma teams of Bud Wilkinson dominated college football in the 1950's. Oklahoma finished at 11-0 in 1949 (second to ND) but won its first national title in 1950 (10-1). After a 10-0-0 year in 1954 (No. 3), Oklahoma went 11-0-0 and 10-0-0 in 1955 and 1956, to win two straight titles. The 1957 team finished 10-1-1 to finish No. 4, as did the 1958 team, that finished No. 5. On November 16, 1957, Notre Dame beat Oklahoma 7-0, ending Oklahoma's record 47-game winning streak, a mark that still stands.

In 1966, the year of the Notre Dame-Michigan State 10-10 tie (The Game of the Century), Alabama felt robbed, when 9-0-1 Notre Dame was voted No. 1 ahead of the Tide, who finished at 11-0-0 and had won national titles in both 1964 and 1965. Actually, Alabama finished No. 3 that year, as Michigan State, also 9-0-1 that season, finished No. 2. Was Alabama really robbed? That year's Crimson Tide not only finished 11-0 after beating Nebraska 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl but during the regular season, Alabama shut out six opponents (including FOUR straight) and outscored its opponents over an 11-game schedule, 304-44!

At first blush one could feel sorry for Alabama but just take a quick look at the Tide's 1964 and 1965 title teams and you may not feel too bad. In 1964, the AP took its final poll prior to the bowl games and a 10-0-0 Alabama team won the national title over a 10-0-0 Arkansas team. However, while Alabama lost 21-17 to No. 5 Texas in that's year's Orange Bowl (Joe Namath vs. Tommy Nobis!), Arkansas completed an 11-0-0 season by beating No. 6 Nebraska 10-7 in the Cotton Bowl. Bad break for Arkansas, good break for 'Bama!

In 1965, the AP decided to wait until after the bowl games before deciding its national champion (the poll would revert to its earlier practice in 1966 and 1967, before going back to after the bowls for good, in 1968). Once again, the Crimson Tide 'played lucky'. Alabama finished the 1965 regular season 8-1-1 and ranked No. 3 behind No. 1 Michigan State (10-0-0) and No. 2 Arkansas (10-0-0). However, with the AP waiting until after the bowl games for its final poll, when Michigan State lost to UCLA 14-12 in the Rose Bowl and Arkansas lost 14-7 to LSU in the Sugar, Alabama, a39-28 winner over Nebraska in the Orange, claimed the AP's first-ever post-bowl national title.

How's that for good fortune? If Alabama's 1966 team did get robbed, it was only karma catching up to them from the 1964 and 1965 teams.

Barry Switzer made quite a debut as Oklahoma's new head coach in 1973. On probation, his team finished No.3 with a 10-0-1 record. Still on probation in 1974, the school won its first AP national title since 1956, going 11-0-0 (USC won the UPI title at 10-1-1). Oklahoma went 11-1-1 in 1975 in Barry's third year (that's a 31-1-1 mark to start his career!) and off probation, captured an undisputed title. There was no three-peat however, as Oklahoma finished 9-2-1 in 1976, finishing No. 5.

Alabama had another close call at three straight national titles from 1977 through 1979. The Tide finished 11-1-0 in 1977 but fell just short of Notre Dame that year (also 11-1-0), when the Irish upset No. 1 Texas 38-10 (and its Heisman winner Earl Campbell) and jumped from No. 5 to No. 1 (only ND could do that!). Alabama went on to capture AP titles in each of the next two years, sharing the 1978 title with USC in 1978 (won UPI under John Robinson with a12-1-0 record to Alabama's 11-1-0 mark), while winning an undisputed title in 1979 with a 12-0-0 mark.

Miami-Florida lost its undefeated season and its No. 1 ranking in 1986's final game, 14-10 to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. However, Miami bounced back to go 12-0-0 in 1987 and capture the school's second national title (first came in 1983). The following year, Miami finished No. 2 (11-1-0) to 12-0-0 Notre Dame (Lou Holtz' team) but made it two national titles in three years, by winning the title in 1989 at 11-1-0. Miami's four-year record from 1986 through 1989 was 45-3-0 and included two national titles, as well as two second-place finishes!

Nebraska almost pulled off a three-peat from 1993 through 1995. The 'Huskers lost an undefeated season and a national title in 1993 when freshman Scott Bentley missed a 45-yard field goal attempt on the Orange Bowl's final play. Florida State's 18-16 win gave Bobby Bowden his first national title. Nebraska went 13-0-0 in 1994 and 12-0-0 over the next two seasons (a 36-1-0 three-year mark!), to win back-to-back titles, but no three-peat. Tom Osborne closed his career two years later in 1997 by going 13-0-0 and winning the coaches' poll, while Michigan (12-0-0) and its Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson, won the AP title.

So as you can see, history tells us that USC has its work cut out for itself in 2005, attempting to win a third straight title. Pete Carroll's offense has lost offensive coordinator extraordinaire, Norm Chow but does anyone really believe it's that big of a deal? Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart is back, as is backfield mates Reggie Bush (5th in the Heisman voting) and LenDale White.

Leinart is 25-1 in his career as a starter, throwing 71 TDs compared to just 15 interceptions. During the team's current 22-game winning streak, the ratio is 63-9! USC has one of the nation's best offensive lines and has two outstanding wide receivers (Jarrett and Smith) as well as an immensely talented TE in Byrd. Bush is arguably the nation's most versatile and exciting player (2330 all-purpose yards, 15 overall TDs and a 6.3 YPC rushing average) and White was the team's leading rusher in 2004 with 1103 yards (5.4 YPC and 15 rushing TDs).

While USC's defense returns just five starters in 2005, this unit is Carroll's 'baby'. Over the last three seasons, USC has allowed 18.5 PPG, 18.4 PPG and 13.0 PPG. The Trojans have allowed rushing averages of 83 YPG (2.8 YPC) in 2002, 60 YPG (1.8 YPC) in 2003 and 79 YPG (2.6 YPC) in 2004. The team's turnover ratio was plus-18 in 2002, plus-20 in 2003 and plus 19 in 2004!

Despite a perfect 13-0 season in 2004, USC was not without its close calls. Stanford led them 28-17 at the half before USC shut down the Cardinal in the second half, winning 31-28. Cal totally outplayed the Trojans in their fifth game of the season, outgaining USC 424-205 and leading in first downs, 28-12. However, at crunch time, Cal couldn't score on four tries from the USC 10-yard line, losing 23-17.

Later in the year, USC fell behind Oregon State 13-0 in the fog of Corvallis but won 28-20 and USC played a very lackluster game versus cross-town rival UCLA in the team's season-ender, winning 29-24 in an uninspired effort!

USC will be favored in all of its games and with 21 straight home wins (average margin of victory of 24.3 PPG!), it's hard to see the Trojans slipping up at home. However, USC does face Fresno State on November 19 and Pat Hill's Bulldogs have had more than a few "major upsets", the last few years.

If USC gets beat this year, it will most likely be at either Oregon (9/24), Arizona State (10/1), Notre Dame (10/15) or Cal (11/12). Let's take them one-by-one.

Mike Bellotti is known as one of the nation's best coaches and Autzen Stadium is not a friendly place. However, the Ducks are coming off a very disappointing 5-6 year and with home losses to Indiana (as a 3-TD favorite!), Arizona State and UCLA in 2004, that "home mystique", is not what it used to be. They do however, have an excellent returning QB in Kellen Clemens (22-10 / 59.9 percent), three excellent WRs and a wonderful all-purpose back in Terrence Whitehead (1144 YR and 44 catches in 2004). Oregon has not played USC in either of the last two years but did beat Carroll's team in Autzen back in 2001 (24-22).

Arizona State is hoping QB Sam Keller's Sun Bowl performance (25-of-45 370 yards, including 4-for-4 on the final drive that was capped by the game-winning TD pass!) is a sign of things to come in 2005. That being said, it's hard to forget ASU's total collapse last year against both USC (lost 45-7) and Cal (27-0)! ASU's 45-7 loss to USC shouldn't have come as much of a surprise I guess, as under Pete Carroll, USC had beaten ASU in 2001 (48-17), in 2002 (34-13) and in 2003 (37-13).

As for Notre Dame, new head coach Charlie Weis does have all 11 offensive starters back but Notre Dame owns just one winning season (10-3 in 2002) in its last four, has not finished in the AP's final top-10 in 11 years and has not won a bowl game in 12 years!. Carroll lost to Notre Dame in his first year at USC (27-16 in South Bend in 2001) but has beaten USC's most bitter rival by exactly 31 points in each of the last three years (44-13, 45-14 and 41-10).

Cal is rebuilding in 2005, returning just eight starters, five fewer than any team in the conference. However, Jeff Tedford has reached a place where most feel he has a system in place that allows him to just 'reload'! Now Cal has given Pete Carroll 'fits' the last three seasons (lost 30-28 in 2002, won in 3 OTs in 2003 and lost 23-17 last year) but if Cal can lose all the talent it did from last year and still stay with USC, Tedford really does deserve that "genius" title.

USC just may get that "Three-Pete"...

Friday's column looks at 2005's many coaching changes.

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