The Sweep

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Mark Sanchez and the Trojans will have to settle for a Rose
Bowl game against Penn State.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

PASADENA, Calif. -- They have only lost once this season, just like Oklahoma, Texas and Florida. They have won nine consecutive games, a streak longer than Oklahoma and Texas and just as long as Florida. They were nearly the unanimous No. 1 team in the country at one point this season, garnering over 95 percent of first place votes. They won their conference outright and qualified for a BCS bowl game for a record seventh consecutive season. And according to several Las Vegas sports books I contacted prior to today's action, they would be favored to beat any team in the country on a neutral field.

The USC Trojans, however, amazingly or understandably -- depending on where you stand -- have absolutely no chance to play in the BCS National Championship Game. None. Nada. Zip. Zero.

Not only are the Trojans not in the championship discussion today, they haven't realistically been in the mix since Sept. 25, when then No. 1 USC lost to Oregon State, 27-21, on a chilly Thursday night in Corvallis, Ore.  

Rarely, if ever, has a No. 1 team lost so early and been so ignored at the end of a season filled with so many one-loss teams. Of all the national championship contenders, USC lost the earliest and went the longest without a loss to finish the season, which in past years would have gotten them back into the race. As it turned out, a 27-21 loss to UCLA on Saturday would have left them with the same fate that their six-point loss to Oregon State did back in September.

"All year, for whatever reason, that one loss hung on us and you can't do much about that," said Pete Carroll, refusing to politic for a spot in the title game after accepting the Rose Bowl's invitation to play Penn State on Jan. 1. "The opinion of that loss never changed even though as it turned out we only played a bad quarter-and-a-half this season. Other than that, we've controlled games and been in the driver's seat all season long. It's really hard to win every game, just look at this season."

Many around the team and within the athletic department will contend privately that USC was ignored because of the national media's insistence on having the SEC champion and Big 12 champion meet in the national championship game this season. USC offensive line coach Pat Ruel went so far as to publicly berate former USC player and Fox Sports Net analyst Petros Papadakis after practice on Wednesday night. "Quit tooting the SEC's horn and the Big 12's horn. Quit it," he said. "You ought to be tooting the Pac-10's horn!"

"It hurts -- we should be in that national championship game," said USC defensive end Kyle Moore. "I want to play an SEC or Big 12 team so we can end that SEC, Big 12 beast. When we go out of conference, we handle business wherever we go: ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big 10, it doesn't matter. I would have liked to have played Florida, Oklahoma or Texas in the championship game."

Of course, USC has only itself to blame for its current predicament. It was gift wrapped the No. 1 ranking after blowing out a sub-par Virginia team in its season opener and was practically the unanimous No. 1 team after beating Ohio State. All it had to do was beat nine average-to-mediocre Pac-10 teams and a lousy Notre Dame side (they would be favored by at least two touchdowns in each game) to get to the national championship game. But they couldn't do it. They lost to 23-point underdog Oregon State, which began the season 2-3 and gave up 65 points to Oregon in its regular season finale.

"We had one bad half. We deserve more," said USC linebacker Rey Maualuga. "We bounced back from that lost and finished strong. We can only control what we can control. We'll accept what comes our way, which is probably going to be the Rose Bowl. We can match up and beat any team in the country. We want to test ourselves against the best."

A myriad of factors have conspired to keep the Trojans out of the national championship game this season and none of it has to do with a national media bias (which is almost laughable when you consider the national media is the only reason USC has at least a split of the 2003 national championship). First of all, the Pac-10 and Notre Dame had down years, meaning the Trojans didn't play a single "signature" game against a ranked team after beating No. 5 Ohio State 35-13 on Sept. 13. While Florida played LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida State and Alabama, USC played Arizona State, Washington, Arizona and Notre Dame. While Oklahoma played Kansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Missouri, USC played Washington State, Cal, Stanford and UCLA.

No matter what they did, they were literally a team stuck in quick sand, unable to get out of the mess it got itself into. That became clear to them early on when they were being leapfrogged by one loss teams in October.

"They did us wrong, they did us dirty," said Moore. "They moved us down from No. 5 to No. 7 after we beat a team 56-0. So we've been trying to fight back every week but it doesn't matter."

USC also didn't help its cause with a couple lackluster performances down the stretch. While its defense will probably go down as one of the best in modern college football history, its offense is one of the most inconsistent Carroll has had. The Trojans beat Arizona 17-10, failing to score in the fourth quarter. They beat Cal 17-3 in a game they lead only 10-3 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile Oklahoma and Florida were busy running up the score against ranked opponent after ranked opponent. After Florida's lone loss to Ole Miss, the Gators scored an average of 49.4 points per game and won by an average margin of 36.4 points. After Oklahoma's loss to Texas, the Sooners averaged 59.9 points and won by an average margin of 30.1 points.

That's the biggest reason why Oklahoma and Florida are likely headed to Miami to play for the national championship, while USC will be spending another New Year's at home in the Rose Bowl.

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