Last month, a reporter asked Jim Mora this about USC: Your predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, plastered billboards announcing UCLA superiority. How will you deal with the Trojans?
Mora, barely baptized in powder blue and gold, deferred.
“When we get to the where we play Southern Cal, we will do that, but right now, that would only be a distraction for us,” Mora said then.
“Right now, it’s about UCLA football.”
But if “it” means either local or national attention, then “it” isn’t about UCLA football at all. No, whatever public face Mora puts on cannot change this year’s dominant Pac-12 storyline: Troy’s triumphant return.
It was fitting that July’s Pac-12 Media Day was staged at Universal Studios, because USC’s rise from the ashes is something out of a movie script: Blue-blood program breaks the rules, gets caught and punished, then comes back as if nothing had ever happened.
That’s where USC is again, perched among the college football elite despite a postseason ban that could have set the program back years. No one’s talking about Pete Carroll anymore, or Reggie Bush, or vacated wins or returned Heismans. “It” is all about now, and now feels like last decade.
The Trojans are the only team west of Texas to have ever won a BCS championship, which began in 1998. Their 2004 trophy — since vacated — was followed by a title-game loss to Texas. That, in turn, was followed by the SEC’s six-year run of unquestioned dominance.
Now eligible for the postseason again, USC is the team most likely to break that Southern stranglehold. The Trojans will open the season with their first No. 1 overall AP ranking in five years — something that might not have happened had LSU not dismissed cornerback Tyrann Mathieu for failed drug tests.
But USC can still claim primary credit for its ascendancy. Lane Kiffin managed to persuade its biggest recruits to not only stay in Los Angeles, but also to keep coming in droves. Over the past three years, Rivals.com ranked the school’s recruiting classes first, fourth and eighth. Its 2013 haul? Currently No. 1.
That alone wasn’t enough. The Trojans went from contender to favorite three days before Christmas, when star quarterback Matt Barkley turned down certain NFL riches for a shot at cementing his place in USC lore. As he heads a group of 19 returning starters — tops in the conference — Figueroa Street is feeling championship-or-bust.
“He may be able to go down as the most historic Trojan ever if we do big things this year,” Kiffin said.
A day after the Pac-12’s official media event, Barkley held a Q&A session with fans on Reddit. One commenter asked him his policy on movie theater armrests; turns out, he hogs both. Another chimed in:
“Arrogant. Just like USC.”
Maybe, but the Trojans can once again back up the talk.