If you could tear yourself away from the interminable coverage of "unanimous-gate" a few weeks back, the Pac-10's publicity campaign during its media days provided one of the more interesting stories of the offseason.
Coach after coach stepped to the dais and proclaimed the conference the best in the country. On its face, it may seem like typical posturing. However, the offensive on the part of the West Coasters clearly reflected a well-coordinated plan to boost the conference's profile nationwide.
Well, the question of whether or not USC should have been snubbed from the BCS title game the past few years has been debated ad nauseam. The Trojans keep on rolling out-of-conference opponents and churning out NFL draft picks. However, if you're looking for the main reason why the Trojans end up on the short end of the stick, it's undoubtedly the company they keep.
Fair or not, there's no denying the national perception that the Big 12 and SEC are a cut above the Pac-10. Last year, the fact that the upstart Mountain West Conference owned the conference in non-conference games certainly supported that idea. A more persistent problem would be the conference's crappy TV contract putting its teams behind the eight ball.
Most importantly, though, Homerism suspects USC's seemingly permanent place atop the conference standings is perpetuating the notion that the Trojans' conference mates are closer to the Big East than the Big 12. Every conference has its elite programs, but none have put the league title in the same kind of stranglehold as 'SC, winner of seven straight championships. Some may interpret that streak as a sign of just how great of a run Pete Carroll's team is on. The flip side: the rest of the conference is watered-down. Thus, when USC drops a game to Oregon State or UCLA, it's a major black mark on the resumé.
(Columnist George Schroeder has put forth a similar argument. Dr. Saturday contends that the Pac-10's monolith simply needs a foil, a la Oklahoma and Texas. If the esteemed Doc's assessment is correct, though, it seems logical that another team winning the conference would be a good place to start.)
As unappealing as this may seem to the "win forever" crowd, a conference championship for a team like Oregon actually could go a long way raising the national opinion of the Pac-10. And what better time for the Trojans to tank than now? After all, USC is breaking in a brand new quarterback, re-stocking almost its entire defense and facing a brutal schedule. As talented as Carroll's players are, the odds of a national championship this season are stacked against them. If the ultimate goal is unattainable, why not let another school in on the action for once?
Tanking or not, the Trojans' run of Pac-10 titles is in jeopardy. California looks particularly strong, and the Ducks could give USC a real push. Plus, programs like Arizona, Stanford and UCLA appear to be in an up cycle and should be a stiffer test than they've been in the past.
We've heard that line before, though. Despite any misgivings about the Trojans, USC still remains the consensus favorite for the Pac-10 crown with good reason. Those slivers of doubt do open the door for a plausible hiccup, though.
Maybe winning forever actually involves losing every once in a while.