By Brendan Loy
When unranked Washington stunned #3 USC on Saturday, it may have seemed like a bolt out of the blue (to everyone except Stewart Mandel, at least), but it’s actually the continuation of a longstanding — and, for Trojan fans, all-too-familiar — pattern.
Even though USC regularly plays in tough, heavily hyped intersectional games, BCS bowls, etc., the Trojans simply do not lose those games. Indeed, they do not lose to non-conference foes, period (unless Vince Young is on the opponent’s roster). Yet they routinely lose 1 to 2 games per year against Pac-10 teams, usually unheralded ones, usually on the road. They’ve done this in each of the six years where they’ve played in a non-title-game BCS bowl — 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008 — and now again in 2009. Their title-game years, ‘04 and ‘05, in which they ran through the Pac-10 schedule undefeated, were the exception, not the rule.
Commentators love to reference the Trojans’ “dominance” in conference play — and each upset since 2006 has been cited as supposedly heralding an end to that dominance, yet the “dominance” talking point always reasserts itself the next time USC loses. Admittedly, at some level, seven straight Pac-10 titles don’t lie. But the truth is, USC has now lost eight games in conference play since 2002, during a span when they’ve lost just once to a nonconference foe (Texas), despite repeatedly playing top-notch national teams in high-profile games. Six of those eight conference losses have occurred since 2006, during which time USC has not lost a single nonconference game! Moreover, the Trojans have spread the wealth: they’ve lost to 7 of the conference’s other 9 teams at least once since 2002. Talk about balance!
As I pointed out in my “Fear the Huskies?” post, it has been a Pac-10 road loss that has prevented USC from reaching the BCS title game in 2003-04, 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09. And now maybe 2009-10, too. If the Pac-10 were truly the “Pac-1,” as some folks contend, the Trojans would probably own four or five BCS titles by now, instead of just one.
Moreover, in all but one case, the team upsetting the Trojans came into the game unranked. The pundits tonight are citing this pattern as a sign of weakness for USC, an error the Trojans keep making year after year. And that’s fair. But, if those pundits are going to be consistent in how they treat the conferences, they need to also acknowledge what it says about the Pac-10.
Commentators love to cite every upset of Florida or LSU or Auburn or Alabama as proof that the SEC is the nation’s “toughest conference from top to bottom” — a veritable “war” in which “anybody can beat you,” so you have to bring your ‘A’ game “week in and week out.” Maybe so. But doesn’t USC’s experience over the last seven years prove that this is also true of the Pac-10?
Again: the Trojans have gone 22-1 (.957) against BCS and BCS-level competition since their loss to Kansas State in early 2002, including wins over powerhouse teams from the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC. But, in that same time frame, they’ve gone “just” 52-8 (.867) against the Pac-10.
Now, 52-8 is a very good record, of course. But it’s a lot less impressive than the Trojans’ record against teams like Auburn and Arkansas from the SEC; Oklahoma and Nebraska from the Big 12; Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa and Illinois from the Big Ten; Virginia and Virginia Tech from the ACC; and of course Notre Dame. USC’s ability to routinely beat up on those national teams, coupled with its inability to run roughshod over its supposedly weak Pac-10 competition (as so many folks wrongly expect them to do each year), clearly demonstrates the absolute falsity of the “Pac-1″ theory. The Pac-10 is a good, competitive conference. You can’t take anything for granted. Anybody can beat you. If you have a letdown, you’ll lose.
If the SEC is a “war,” then dammit, so is the Pac-10.
It’s also instructive to look at why, in spite of its losses, USC has still managed to win those “seven straight conference titles” that everyone keeps talking about. The answer to that question is further evidence of the Pac-10’s toughness, and its tendency toward intraconference cannibalism. Why hasn’t anybody dethroned USC? It’s not because the Trojans have been invincible — rather, it’s because, after beating USC, the Trojan-vanquishers invariably lose other games to other Pac-10 teams, preventing them from winning the conference title (or at least from winning it outright). Because, news flash, winning in the Pac-10 is hard.
For instance, Washington State, which beat USC in 2002, finished 7-1 in conference play, a loss to Washington in the Apple Cup preventing them from winning the league outright.
Cal, which beat USC in 2003, finished 5-3 in conference play that year, with losses to Oregon State, UCLA and Oregon.
Oregon State, which beat USC in 2006, finished 6-3, with losses to Cal, Washington State, and UCLA. The Bruins, who also beat USC that year (let us never speak of it again), finished 5-4, losing to Washington, Oregon, Washington State, and Cal.
Stanford, which beat USC in 2007, finished 3-6, with losses to UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State. Oregon, another USC-beater in ‘07, finished 5-4, with losses to Cal, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State.
Oregon State, which beat USC in 2008, finished 7-2, with losses to Stanford and Oregon. And Washington in 2009? I’m willing to bet they’ll suffer at least two losses in conference play before the season is out.
If you want to say that this means USC has lost to a bunch of mediocrities over the last few years, I won’t argue with you. But then, don’t turn around and apply a different standard to other leagues, citing these very same sort of facts as proof positive of conference parity, competitive balance, and “war-like” anybody-on-any-given-day status.
If you want to find a conference where anybody can beat anybody else, look no further than the Pac-10. Saturday’s game was just the latest proof of that.