After finishing the season 9-3, good for ninth in the college football playoff rankings, USC will be heading to the Rose Bowl on January 2nd. The Trojans’ turnaround was remarkable after a poor 1-3 start which had many believing that the program would need another change at the top to return to past glory. However, with USC now playing in a New Years Six game—that just so happens to be the most famous bowl game in history—USC has a fantastic opportunity to prove that they are “back.”
Once a national powerhouse throughout the 2000s under Pete Carroll, the struggles that the program has endured since have been well documented. The combination of crippling sanctions and poor coaching has led to a period in which the Trojans have not been able to capture an elusive Pac-12 championship or finish a season ranked in the top 5. USC will most likely not accomplish either of those goals in 2016, but a victory over number five ranked Penn State in a huge bowl game will be the first signature win for USC during postseason play in a number of years.
With the exception of the 2011 season, USC has not had a team truly capable of competing on a national level since Pete Carroll left for Seattle. The Trojans are 4-7 against AP Top 10 teams since Carroll departed and not once have they won two such games in the same season during that period. In comparison, from the 2001 season through Carroll’s final year, USC was an incredible 14-4 against teams in the AP Top 10, only once losing by more than one score.
The Trojans have had a few signature wins since the Super Bowl Winning coach left for the NFL, but they have not been able to do so on a regular basis. Victory against Penn State would give USC two wins in a row against AP Top 5 teams rather than just the Top 10. Plus, a victory would mark a 10 win season in which three victories may be against teams that are able to finish the season ranked in the Top 10—rather than simply being that highly ranked at the time the game is played (depending on Colorado). For a USC program that has struggled against national powerhouses for 6-7 years now, these would be very impressive accomplishments that can be the foundation of a return to past glory.
Perhaps the biggest reason why a Rose Bowl victory is the Trojans’ chance to prove they are back is due to the intense media presence around the game. Facing the reigning Big 10 champion who many people believe to be playoff-worthy is certainly a daunting task. The Big 10 was the strongest conference in college football this season and Penn State was the champion. Beating a team of that caliber on one of the biggest stages would certainly make waves around college football. No longer would anyone be able to discount USC’s victories against Washington and Colorado as signs of Pac-12 weakness (even though those arguments are extremely weak themselves).
Finally, a Rose Bowl victory would give USC some serious momentum heading into the offseason. From recruiting to the positivity surrounding the team when Spring Practice returns, everything would be looking upwards with a win. Top high school players are already beginning to take notice of USC’s eight game winning streak and another victory over a team of Penn State’s ilk could carry into a strong finish on national signing day. In terms of the returning players, another Rose Bowl added to the annals of Trojan lore is plenty of motivation to strive for taking the next step in 2017—a National Championship.
Since Pete Carroll left and the NCAA sanctions were delivered soon after, USC football has largely been filled with disappointment. Terrible head coaching decisions led to the weakness of scholarship limitations being exposed and the result was a number of years where tremendous talent unfortunately went to waste. However, the team’s incredible eight game winning streak has completely changed the attitude around Heritage Hall and another signature victory would be the perfect way to cap off a successful season. From the impact on Howard Jones field this coming spring and summer to the national hype it would create, a Trojan victory on January 2nd would be the signature moment for USC to prove that it is “back.”
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