It is quiet, a low, barely perceptible hum beneath the fanfare, pomp and circumstance always associated with the beginnings of the football season, beneath the churning, whirling mass of the 24 hour news cycle gearing up to feast upon America’s favorite flesh, the gridiron, beneath the throaty screams of the vicarious, vampiric souls living through gargantuan men in candy colored helmets that careen into each other, before God and hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of fans, beneath all of this noise, the noise that has been with us for decades and shall be for decades to come, there is another, low lying hum.
Those of us with an ear to the ground and the right kind of eyes can pinpoint the sound, can trace it back to its roots, which are, in a way surprising: the hum is coming from down Southeast way, in SEC land, and it is not the cool confidence of champions. It is the whisper of doubt and fear. What could possibly make the mighty Southeastern Conference, winner of six straight National Titles, where football is religion–could there be a more Biblical name for a football side than Crimson Tide?–where Death Valley teems with life, where the phrase “between the hedges” evokes images that are anything but genteel, begin to, if not show outright fear, per se, because it is certainly not at that point, but in the least, doubt itself? The answer comes from the West, from the glistening glitter and Pacific grime of the Left Coast. The men of Troy are at the gates, and they are poised to regain their place in college football’s highest palaces.
In 2009, the NCAA brought the hammer down on USC, punishing the Trojans with a two year Bowl ban and, more importantly, piling on scholarship limitations and probation due to improprieties surrounding benefits received by former tailback Reggie Bush and his family. The sports world was stunned by the assault; the smoking crater left in Los Angeles was meant to be a warning, that the NCAA was about to get serious. It was a fortuitous time for the organization to stand its ground. Soon, scandals in Columbus, Coral Gables and, most distressingly of all, State College, would erupt. But as the programs they wished to whip into subversion came under fire, an interesting thing happened: Indianapolis often found itself painted as the villain, a bunch of jackbooted thugs rather than a governing body. The NCAA was seen as immoral, a group of plantation owners hiding behind the ideals of amateurism and a false idolatry of the “student athlete” to accumulate millions upon the backs and necks of players it in actuality does little to protect. Most thoughtful and damning of the attacks was Taylor Branch’s “The Shame of College Sports” in The Atlantic; numerous others, including Charles P. Pierce, raise the alarm as well, in a desperate attempt to teach the sporting public what any economics of sport student already knows. Namely, that the NCAA is a cartel, and the Medellin model dominates collegiate sports.
When Kentucky won the 2012 NCAA basketball title, it was seen as a defiant gesture, a team frequently plagued by the NCAA’s byzantine rules and regulation, and the one whom the organization had hoisted their original power grab upon in the first place (see Branch’s piece) striking back, going from thumbing their nose at The System as they racked up wins to giving it a hardy middle finger and a full on “fuck you” upon taking its most ballyhooed title. But what USC could be on the cusp of doing would go even further, be an even greater affront on Indianapolis. The sanctions and bans were supposed to hamstring the Trojans, cut them down, make them an example, an entire football program decapitated and left on the side of the road, distinctive cardinal and cold colors stained with dark, sticky blood and dirt whilst teams who toed the line found their way to lucrative BCS bowls and conference championship games, winding past the corpses.
But as Ralph D. Russo of the AP points out, then new head coach Lane Kiffin and the Southern Cal administration fought back. By appealing sanctions they certainly knew would be upheld (if you were a cartel, would you repeal your own punishments?) the Trojans bought precious time, allowing Kiffin to stack his team for the near future, filling the blood bank one last time. After a disappointing 8-5 season in 2010, the Trojans stormed back in 2011, going 10-2 and looking for all the world like the most dangerous team in college football. Locked out for the last time, they tore through their opponents like a pack of vicious adjules, building buzz into a deafening crescendo by the end of the year, and finally, in 2012, after two years in the wastelands–one as paupers, the other as war lords–they emerge from the desert of penitence at the top of the preseason heap.
Crucial to weathering the storm has been Kiffin’s maneuvering and the Trojan’s vaunted offense, keyed by Matt Barkley and wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqiese Lee. Barkley is steady and poised–I personally saw him shrug off over 100,000 screaming Buckeye fans as a freshman–strong armed and accurate, a prototypical signal caller of the kind traditionally utilized in USC’s pro style offense. His numbers last year were impressive (3,528 yards, an almost seventy percent completion rate and 39 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions) and it is unlikely he would return for another go, forgoing the NFL, if he did not strongly believe in what he and his teammates were capable of. Chief among the causes for confidence are Woods and Lee, who both went over the 1,000 yard mark last season. Barkley is fond of hitting them on the skinny post, as his strength and their soft hands combine for a vertical torching that opens up the field for running back Curtis McNeal, who rolled up over 1,000 yard, and who will be joined by newly acquired Penn State refugee Silas Redd.
The chink in the armor is on the defensive side of the ball; SC finished 54 in total defense last season, and will face a steady barrage of high octane and powerful offenses from Hawaii, Stanford and Oregon, who has become something of a replacement nemesis for the Trojans while Notre Dame and UCLA languish in college football Hell. Behind Barkley and the hydra headed monster of Woods, Lee and McNeal the Trojans were often capable of flexing enough muscle to pull off the shootout, losses to Stanford and Arizona State being the notable exceptions.
It is not the team who took those loses that we look to this year, however, but rather the one that climbed into the top five by the January despite being on sanctions. They have a slim margin for error, as the scholarship limitations will slowly but surely exsanguinate the program, but the Trojans had enough focus to fight on from purgatory, and will not miss their chance to draw blood one more time before the strength slowly drains away. USC should not be here, at the top of the AP poll in August, threatening to end the SEC’s title dominance. But the Men of Troy do not fear cartels. They have staved off the wrath of the NCAA, bought themselves the time for this one glorious season, and they are coming for the SEC next.
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