The Lede: This Ain’t Your Daddy’s USC/Texas

Photo: EricR (CC License)

This weekend, the Texas Longhorns travel to Los Angeles to play the USC Trojans, in what is one of the most hotly anticipated games of the year. The Trojans are heavily favored — currently the spread sits at around 16 points — thanks to their stable of blue-chip recruits, impressive 10-game win-streak, and a backfield duo that’s maybe the best in the country. Does any of this sound familiar?

Of course it does. The last time the Trojans and the Longhorns squared off it was for the 2006bnational title, in one of the best and most memorable games in college football history. Things have changed significantly for both teams since then, and it’s remarkable how different this contest is than its immediate predecessor.

Before the 2006 game, USC had won 45 of its 46 previous games. It featured not one but two Heisman trophy-winners in the backfield. They’d won the national championship the year prior in a way that suggested they might never lose again. Pete Carroll brought the best recruits in the country to USC, and fielded the best team in the country, and it seemed like nobody could compete with them. They were favored by at least two touchdowns in all but one of their 2005 games, and were regularly 30-point favorites.

Texas was the definition of a powerhouse. Mack Brown was easily the most powerful man in a state the president called home; young quarterbacks were lining up to follow in Vince Young’s footsteps; and Colt McCoy was the #1 recruit in the country. Mack Brown told future national champion Greg McElroy that he wasn’t athletic enough to play quarterback at Texas and he wasn’t kidding.

That all started to come apart, for both teams, after the 2006 Rose Bowl. NCAA investigations and weird upset losses (the 2007 Stanford loss, in which USC was favored by 41 points, was the biggest point-spread upset in history at the time) would plague the Trojans, who then replaced Pete Carroll with Lane Kiffin (didn’t work out), Ed Orgeron (didn’t work out), and Steve Sarkisian (really¬†didn’t work out). In Austin, Mack Brown’s famed recruiting waned, and then sputtered to a halt. Colt McCoy got injured in the 2009 title game and Nick Saban’s dynasty began. Once Brown was finally let go, the Longhorns had three frustrating years under Charlie Strong and are now in their first year with Tom Herman. They didn’t make a bowl game last year, despite having the largest budget in the country. They opened this year with a home loss to Maryland.

The last time these two met, it was a clash of titans. This time, it’s a clash of sleeping giants, one well into the process of waking up and one hopefully starting to stir. USC took care of business against Stanford, has a Heisman trophy favorite in quarterback Sam Darnold, and has one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Texas has a stable of young QBs to choose from, but hasn’t had an offensive player selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Vince Young.

Takeaway: USC is favored by a little more than two touchdowns (-15), so a Texas win would actually be a bigger upset than the 2006 game. This game doesn’t seem to have the force of history behind it the same way that game did, although I’m sure Snoop Dogg will be there again.

USC was +160 to win the national championship in the preseason that year, and haven’t come particularly close since Vince Young ended their hopes in ’06. It’s hard not to draw parallels with Alabama, which entered this season as a +300 favorite to win the national title. As good as Saban’s teams are, as well as they’ve been recruiting, USC was in the same spot just over a decade ago and are only just getting back to the spotlight. Nothing is forever in this game, as much as it seems like some things are. One day Alabama is going to be an SEC also-ran, and then great again, and so on and so forth.

For this year, though, the value is with USC. The Trojans just stomped on a Stanford team that’s much better than Texas (42-28) and will be in front of friendly fans again. Darnold should score almost at will on a Longhorn defense that surrendered over 50 points and nearly 500 yards to the Terps. Particularly concerning: Texas’ vulnerability against the pass; the Maryland QBs combined to go 12-15 for 219 yards and two touchdowns. What do you think will happen when it’s faced with the future no. 1-overall pick and his crew of five-star wideouts?