Fri Oct 08 10:49am EDT
Gather round, children, and hear the tale of the 41-point underdog and the greatest upset on record. When lowly Stanford embarked on a 17-point fourth-quarter rally to lay low top-ranked USC in 2007, 24-23, it was like some kind of impossible folk tale. And the Cardinal needed all manner of magic and fortune (i.e. five Trojan turnovers) to pull it off.
But that was just a good story for the night, not a sign of anything to come. It wouldn't have been conceivable then that Stanford might actually be favored to beat USC within the college careers of any player on either roster, or at any point in the foreseeable future.
It wouldn't have been conceivable by the end of that season, either, when Stanford slumped to another losing record – including a home loss to the worst team in Notre Dame history – and USC rebounded to finish No. 3 in the final polls. Or at the end of the following season, when the Trojans dominated again en route to their seventh straight Pac-10 title. Or last year, when Stanford, coming off an impressive win over the same Oregon outfit that had just buried USC a week before, was still a 10-point underdog coming into the L.A. Coliseum.
If there was any single moment when Saturday's 10-point line in Palo Alto – up a full field goal from the initial release earlier in the week – became possible, the 55-21 bloodbath that ensued in that game was probably it. But even last year's November collapse doesn't make the moment any less stark for the Trojans, underdogs Saturday for the first time since going into Oregon +2 with backup quarterback Mark Sanchez at the helm a few weeks after the Stanford stunner in '07. They're double-digit 'dogs for the first time since Sept. 26, 1998, at Florida State.
Only two players on USC's two-deep, fullback Stanley Havili and backup quarterback Mitch Mustain, have ever started a college game they weren't expected to win, and Mustain was a freshman at Arkansas at the time.
So if a USC loss Saturday (which is by no means a foregone conclusion) won't exactly qualify as earth-shaking news, that reality is news in itself. Prior to last November, the Trojans had lost nine games since early 2002, and were ranked in the top four going into all but one of them, almost always as at least a touchdown favorite.
Last week's last-second stumble against Washington, a team barely removed from being thumped by Nebraska at home, was the first time in ages an SC loss felt relatively normal. Going back to last year, it was the Trojans' third stumble in their last four Pac-10 games in the Coliseum, and their second straight against Washington, the first time they'd dropped back-to-back games against the same team in almost a decade.
And so here we are. Certainly talent is not an issue. The on-field effects of NCAA sanctions should still be years away. But psychologically, one way or another, the combination of last year's slide, the abrupt transition from Pete Carroll's to Lane Kiffin's and the absence of a brass ring waiting in the Rose Bowl at year's end have left USC as the kind of team that loses two straight against Washington, ranks 99th in total defense and occasionally finds itself a 10-point underdog to the smart kids, even when the smart kids are coming off a three-touchdown loss of their own. It's already the new normal, and at this point, it's going to take one scrappy, against-the-odds effort to reverse it.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.