It's been pretty obvious for most of the season that this year's version of USC isn't your typical Pete Carroll juggernaut, but to the casual observer, USC is still USC. They reload every year, beat up on the Pac-10, win 11-12 games and go to a BCS bowl. There's been no deviation from that script since Carroll took over back in 2001.
I've been saying all season, though, that every team eventually has a true rebuilding (not reloading) year, and this would be USC's. Talent can only do so much when you've got 10 new starters on defense and a freshman quarterback. My expectations for this team were tempered.
But did anyone see that coming? And by "that," I mean a 34-point loss at home to Stanford. I know Stanford's playing well and has been surprisingly potent on offense this year, but WTF? We're talking about USC's worst loss in 33 years -- worse than any loss in the '90s, when they dropped off the college football map -- and the most points allowed in Carroll's tenure. Everything about that game was shocking, and Pete Carroll obviously MUST BE FIRED!!!
Seriously though, Jim Harbaugh has done a great job with the Cardinal offense this year and deserves credit for turning Stanford around quickly from the dregs of the Walt Harris era. It should be noted that Stanford is now 10th in the country in scoring (36.2 points per game), just one spot behind Oregon. I also hope he enjoyed the last few minutes of that game, because at some point in the near future, he's gonna regret the way it went down. Going for two with 6:47 left when you're ahead by 27 points is just plain classless, and that won't be forgotten when USC is back to be a Pac-10 wrecking ball that destroys everything in its path (and that will happen -- just look at the number of underclassmen in USC's starting lineup).
It'll be strange, though, seeing USC in the Holiday Bowl or something that isn't a huge game to end the year. There's not really anything wrong with going 9-3 -- wins over UCLA and Arizona, both at home, are still pretty likely -- but when 11 victories and a BCS bowl beatdown of Oklahoma or the Big Ten champion has been your baseline, that's a steep dropoff.
I think we're finally seeing not only the youth factor take effect, but also the constant turnover on the coaching staff that's been brought on by USC's remarkable success. I mentioned the loss of defensive coordinator Nick Holt to Washington as a factor in the Huskies' upset six weeks ago, but it's obviously done a lot more damage than just that one game. And look a little further back: Norm Chow, Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin, DeWayne Walker, Ed Orgeron ... and so on. You can only lose so many elite assistants and maintain the same level of player development. Five-star talent will only get you so far; just ask Notre Dame.
As for who wins the Pac-10, Oregon is the clear frontrunner -- wins over Arizona (in Tucson) and Oregon State (in Eugene) would send the Ducks to Pasadena. Stanford and Arizona each have an outside shot if a crapload of things go right, but if you make the bold assumption that Arizona won't beat Oregon and USC, the Oregon-Oregon State game on December 3 will decide who goes to the Rose Bowl. Not a bad way to wrap up the regular season.