We’re playing a game that no one wins.
And there’s nothing to lose if we stop playing.
USC succumbed to the Curse of Corvallis last night, losing at Oregon State 27-21 for their third time in the past four road trips to what is becoming Pete Carroll’s Beaver Damn. This time, it was a pathetic first half effort that did the Trojans in, as Jacquizz “Quizz” Rodgers took the lead in both the College Football Name of the Year Tournament and the Best Rodgers Brother at Oregon State Award, gashing USC’s dreadnaught defense time and again for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The performance was the best one on the ground against the Trojans since some guy named Vince Young scampered into the SoCal night.
But maybe more important than the fact the top team in the land lost, and to an unranked team that had been crushed by Penn State and edged by Stanford, we were wrong.
If there’s a person outside of Corvallis or the Oregon State program who says he or she would have, for any sum of money, bet on the Beavers before the events of Thursday night, hook that person up to a lie detector or have Steve Schmidt sign him up for attack ad duty. The signal achievement of this team was beating a woeful Hawai’i team on the weekend the Pac-10 plummeted. (I noted that, tongue in cheek, in The Hangover Cure.)
And there’s no logical reason this USC team would have turned in that sort of performance aside from the continuation of a trend of playing down to their competition, and even that seemed unlikely, considering the capabilities for suffocating defense and withering deployment of offensive machinery demonstrated against Ohio State.
And yet, that same team was down 21-0 at halftime, down 27-21 after the final whistle, and down one Rey Maualuga, who left with a leg injury. The Trojans lost a game, a chance at perfection, and, hopefully, once and for all, their veneer of invulnerability.
Actually, they should have lost that last one for everyone.
If a team as talented and well-coached as USC is — and I will argue that this team is deeper than any other playing this year — is susceptible to the upset bug, then anyone is.
It doesn’t matter how much offensive talent Florida has; pressure Tim Tebow and that dissolves. Shutting down Knowshon Moreno and forcing Georgia to pass and play you close almost worked for South Carolina. Oklahoma is going to have their scare this week against a rugged TCU team. Penn State’s played no one. Wisconsin couldn’t score with a team that can go deep regularly; Missouri is going to have problems against a defense that can limit their passing offense.
And that’s just how it is. In a time of broader competition for recruits, falling scholarship caps, and the advancement of the spread offense while the exact defensive weaknesses it exploits — speed at the edges and sound open-field tackling — are more and more prevalent, there’s no invincibility anymore.
To go undefeated in the top level of college football, the most essential factor is luck; the schedule must set up just right for you, the bounce has to go your way in the close conference road game, and the injuries have to decimate your rival and not you.
And those things are impossible to control.
We, as pundits, like to frame the argument differently. We like to say things like “Oregon’s the only name of note that could challenge this team when motivated” and “the Trojans should start checking Orbitz for the best tickets to Miami.” And we don’t even heed our own warnings about how USC has “trademarked the stunning lapse against a team with no business beating it.”
We’re not just wrong. We’re damn wrong.
If Appalachian State can upend Michigan in the Big House, if South Florida can rise to the top of the polls, if a two-loss LSU proved they really were the best in the country last year, if we see chronic inflation of brand name schools to the detriment of good ones, we should know, by now, that this isn’t the college football we knew in the 1990s or even earlier this decade.
And yet, we freight the stellar squad du jour with all the expectations we would have put on Howard Schnellenberger’s great Miami teams, or Tom Osborne’s steamrolling football robots disguised as Nebraska, when, in reality, there was more dropoff between the first and second spot in those years than there may be between the first and tenth spot now.
We look for legends and can’t recognize that we’re only seeing distorted reflections in today’s mirror, and that’s why I’ve written this whole piece about how the Trojans collapsed instead of about, as Pete Carroll mentioned to his infinite credit in the postgame, the Beavers played a magnificent game and secured one of the best wins in the history of their program and certainly the biggest Thursday night upset ever. (Sorry, this is close, but it’s not the same.)
We’re missing the best storyline that’s possible while hunting for a better one that isn’t.
The Era of the Unbeatens is over, and the sooner we all shut up about it and enjoy the Time of Uncertainty, the better off we will all be.