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September 15, 2008

Could this be Carroll's best USC team?

MORE: Monday with Mike: Nasty SEC weekend ahead | Dinehart's Week 3 Awards

LOS ANGELES Just as with the nation's other college football teams, there are questions facing USC.

But the questions surrounding the top-ranked Trojans are significantly different than those of the other programs, especially after Saturday's 35-3 flogging of Ohio State.

A cynical nation seems quick to dismiss the Buckeyes as plodding, clumsy oafs who benefit greatly from membership in the speed-challenged Big Ten. And though that's not truly the case, the Trojans sure made them look that way.

That dominant showing now raises questions: Do the Trojans have any weaknesses? Can anyone on their schedule beat them? Is this coach Pete Carroll's best Trojans team to date?

Ask the locals, who wear their emotions on their red-and-gold sleeves, and the answers are no, no and yes. But even after dominating the Buckeyes, Carroll wasn't about to compare this team to any of his seven others at USC. He did say the Trojans played to their standards, which pretty much says it all.

"Over the years, when we prepare this well, when we have our guys, we're hard to beat no matter who we play," Carroll said after the victory. "That's the standard we live in."

In seven-plus seasons under Carroll, USC has 78 victories, two national championships and six consecutive top-five finishes.

"I felt we performed to our abilities," Carroll said. "We didn't do anything unique; we just ran the game plan. This is a great win for us, but it doesn't mean any more than the others. The next game is just as big for us."

Whether the Trojans truly believe that likely holds the true answer to the aforementioned questions. It's not as if USC has been showered with "best-ever" praise before only to come away bitterly disappointed.

In 2005, the Trojans were being hailed as the best team in the history of college football, but lost to Texas in the national championship game. A year later, they appeared on their way back to the national championship game, but lost to Oregon State and UCLA along the way. Last season they seemed unbeatable until lowly Stanford beat them.

But there are several reasons the Trojans figure to steer clear of the potholes this season as they take a bead on Miami, site of the national championship game.

Their quarterback play is excellent. Their running backs and receivers are explosive. Their defense is ornery. And their schedule appears easy after USC's Pac-10 brethren went 2-7 this past weekend. That includes Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA going 0-4 against the Mountain West Conference, Washington State getting trampled by perennial Big 12 doormat Baylor and California falling to Maryland, which was coming off a loss to Middle Tennessee State.

Pete Carroll's record since arriving at USC:
Year Record Bowl/result
2001 6-6 Lost Las Vegas Bowl
2002 11-2 Won Orange Bowl
2003 12-1 Won Rose Bowl *
2004 13-0 Won Orange Bowl #
2005 12-1 Lost Rose Bowl
2006 11-2 Won Rose Bowl
2007 11-2 Won Rose Bowl
2008 2-0 TBD
* - Shared national title; # - Won national title
But USC doesn't have to focus on the negatives of its conference to be positive about its chances of going unbeaten. Quarterback Mark Sanchez now has complete understanding of the offense to go along with his immense talent. He has thrown seven touchdown passes four against Ohio State in two games and is obviously more confident and polished than a year ago, when he started three games in place of injured starter John David Booty.

"He's working the offense the way it's (supposed to) work," Carroll said. "He's making the checks he needs to make. He's playing like top (USC) quarterbacks have played, and it's cool to see that early in the season."

For USC fans, it's also cool to see sophomore tailback Joe McKnight emerging as the electrifying presence he was expected to be when he was signed out of high school. McKnight averaged more than 8 yards per carry while rushing for 105 yards against the Buckeyes.

Then, there are the receivers, who arrived with great hype but haven't yet lived up to it. Arkansas transfer Damian Williams may be on the verge of doing so. He has 10 receptions this season and had two touchdown grabs against an experienced Ohio State secondary.

"He's an absolute stud," Sanchez said. "He was away from football for a year, so he's hungry."

And while L.A. loves flash and dash, this offense is more substance than image.

"They are not fancy but their protection is very good and their run game is solid," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "Their quarterback has pretty good feet and kept plays alive. He knew when to throw the ball away a few times.

"They were good across the board."

No doubt about that. The Trojans' first touchdowns were scored by fullback Stanley Havili and backup tight end Blake Ayles, both on receptions. When opposing defenses have to worry about Sanchez, McKnight and fellow tailback C.J. Gable and wide receivers Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton and Williams, it seems almost unfair that the Trojans can burn them with a fullback and a reserve tight end.

"Obviously, it's a luxury when you have a fullback that you can throw to out of the backfield," USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "And it's a luxury to have Joe McKnight and what he can do. We have a lot of versatility in our offense.

"Stanley has the ability to get down the field more than most fullbacks, and we'll use him."

USC typically has a high-scoring offense. What sets these Trojans apart might be the defense, which held Ohio State without a touchdown for the first time in 141 games.

When the Trojans reached the '05 national championship game, they had defensive issues and had allowed 31 points to Notre Dame and 42 to Fresno State before falling to Texas 41-38.

The Trojans return seven starters from a 2007 defensive unit which ranked among the nation's best. Five of them tackle Fili Moala, end Kyle Moore, linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing and free safety Taylor Mays have been projected by various sources as potential first-round selections in next year's NFL draft.

The Trojans aren't dependent on their offense to score 40 points in order to win. They held Ohio State to 71 rushing yards, and the only time the Trojans seemed vulnerable was when OSU freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor faked handoffs and ran.

That doesn't appear to be a worrisome issue, though. Washington quarterback Jake Locker is the only starting quarterback in the Pac-10 who's a true running threat.

"This is the best defense I've been on," said Moore, a senior. "I've been on teams that went to the national championship. We have a lot of seniors and we returned a lot of guys. And the young guys like (end) Everson Griffen are contributing. A lot of guys are contributing."

Five players notched sacks against Ohio State. The Trojans also forced a fumble and two interceptions, one returned 48 yards for a touchdown by Maualuga.

"The mark of a really good defense is taking the ball away," Carroll said. "If we keep this up, we can really be good. If this can become a factor for us, we can really be hard to beat."

As hard to beat as some of his previous USC teams?

Perhaps even harder.

MORE: Monday with Mike: Nasty SEC weekend ahead | Dinehart's Week 3 Awards

Olin Buchanan is a Heisman voter and a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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