In the years well before Alabama and Clemson surged to be the dominant programs of the college football world, and even before the SEC went on its dominate run of BCS championships, the USC Trojans made their case for being the last great college football program hailing from the Pac-12. The journey to a national championship that many considered to be somewhat stained to this day began after the 2000 season with the hiring of Pete Carroll, a coach who had run his brief course in the NFL as the head coach of the New England Patriots and last coached a college team in 1983 as a defensive coordinator for Pacific. The hiring may have raised some questions about how serious USC was restoring the program to its national championship-worthy caliber experienced under John Robinson in the late 1970s.
History shows now, those concerns were invalidated in retrospect.
Carroll went 6-6 with USC in his first season on the job at USC, but the groundwork for getting USC back to the top was already in progress. Among the first recruits signed by Carroll at USC was quarterback Matt Leinart in the Class of 2001. It didn’t take long for USC to rejuvenate the always rich recruiting efforts at USC, with players like Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Steve Smith and more coming in the Class of 2003. In his second season, Carroll coached USC to a record of 11-2 with a 38-17 victory over No. 3 Iowa. USC followed that season up with a 12-1 record in 2003 that was capped with a Rose Bowl victory over the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines to force a debate over who should have been crowned national champion. USC took the top spot in the final Associated Press poll, but the Trojans were prevented from playing in the BCS Championship Game, that year played in the Sugar Bowl. As a result, Nick Saban and LSU won the BCS national championship after LSU’s victory over Big 12 champion Oklahoma.
After missing out on a chance to play in the BCS championship game due to those silly computer equations, USC went on a mission to leave nothing to be calculated by a mathematical equation to determine their place in history. Labeled the preseason No. 1 in the AP poll, USC went on a historic season with one of the top offenses college football has seen in the modern era of the game. To this day, the USC offense is arguably one of the best that can stand on their own against the likes of the last great Miami Hurricanes team, the 1994 Penn State offense and even the top offenses of today. The season started with a 24-13 victory over Virginia Tech in the BCA Classic in Landover, Maryland, thus establishing their dominance in front of the east coast voters right out of the gates. A 23-17 victory over No. 7 California (a team featuring Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and Marshawn Lynch at running back) was followed a week later by a 45-7 demolition of No. 15 Arizona State, with the Sun Devils entering the game at a clean 5-0.
There was little stopping USC from an inevitable run to a Pac-10 championship, although the Trojans had to overcome a minor scare from Oregon State on the road in early November and then pull away from crosstown rival UCLA in the regular-season finale to keep an unblemished record and a No. 1 ranking intact. Bush got the game started with a bang. Cue up that classic Keith Jackson play-by-play…
He’d break loose again later in the game. More Jackson, please…
And in doing so, USC got a chance to go toe-to-toe with the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl, the site of the BCS Championship Game at the end of the 2004 season. A battle of Heisman Trophy winners Leinart and Jason White (Oklahoma’s QB won the Heisman Trophy in 2003, Leinart in 2004) was a complete mismatch. The quest to leave no doubt was fulfilled by USC with a 55-19 dismantling of the Sooners, who had now gone a whole four years without winning a national title.
A total of 14 seasons have come and gone since USC’s blowout of the Sooners. If you have forgotten what was going on all that time ago, here’s a trip down memory lane just for you.
Last National Championship: 2004 (15 years and counting)
Who was President?
George W. Bush was wrapping up his first four-year term in the White House and preparing to win the 2004 Presidential Election. Bush won a much-less controversial presidential election over Democratic nominee John Kerry.
Current president Donald J. Trump saw his company, Trump’s Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, began going through bankruptcy restructuring in 2004. Trump also considered running for president in 2004 before backing off that idea, and he became engaged to Melanie Knauss (who is now known as First Lady Melania Trump).
What was on TV?
Speaking of Trump, he was dipping his toes in the world of reality-based competition on TV. With shows “American Idol” and “Survivor” bringing in massive ratings, Trump starred in the premiere episode of “The Apprentice,” in which contestants battled to win a job working for Trump. Among those contestants was the one and only Omarosa.
Another show with a cult following premiered in 2004 with “Lost.” in September.
What movies were hot?
Harry Potter was back in a big way in 2004 with the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The latest chapter in the Harry Potter film franchise scored $249.5 million at the box office in 2004 but that was only good for sixth on the box office standings that year. Shrek 2, the best of the series, was the No. 1 film of 2004, followed by Spider-Man 2, and The Passion of the Christ.
In 2004, the movie Mean Girls also introduced us to the idea of wearing pink on Wednesday and “fetch” and so much more.
Who was on the cover of NCAA Football?
Pittsburgh legend and Arizona Cardinals rookie Larry Fitzgerald graced the cover of NCAA Football 2005 for the Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube, and Microsoft Xbox. The game featured a full lineup of FBS teams at the time and, just for good measure, included 70 FCS schools to help provide a little more reality to your fictional scheduling needs.
Fitzgerald was a unanimous All-American in 2003 and recipient of the Biletnikoff Award, Walter Camp Award and All-Big East honors. The Pitt icon went on to be the No. 3 overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals, where he currently plays today as he is destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame (he is not yet in the College Football Hall of Fame but should be a shoo-in for that as well).
Fitzgerald had 92 receptions for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns in the 2003 season for the Panthers.
What else happened in 2004?
Other conference champions in 2004 included Virginia Tech (ACC), Auburn (SEC), Utah (Mountain West), Louisville (Conference USA), and Toledo (MAC). Boise State went undefeated in the regular season to capture another WAC championship, but the Broncos were topped by Louisville, coached by Bobby Petrino, in the Liberty Bowl.
The Big East saw a mess at the top of the standings with Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia all ending in a tie for first place in the conference. What a time to be alive.
The Big Ten title was shared by Michigan and Iowa, which resulted in the Wolverines heading to the Rose Bowl to square off with Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns. With USC playing in the BCS Championship Game, the Rose Bowl got a chance to fill the Pac-12’s vacancy with Texas. Texas clipped Chad Henne, Braylon Edwards and the Wolverines with a last-second field goal for a 38-37 victory in Pasadena. Young rushed for 192 yards and four touchdowns in the victory for Mack Brown. The following season, of course, would be a memorable one for the Longhorns at the expense of USC’s bid for back-to-back titles.
You may or may not remember who won the Super Bowl in January of 2004 (the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers), but you most certainly know about the halftime performance involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. The Patriots would go on to win a second straight Super Bowl in the 2004 season with a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Eagles would have to wait 13 years to get their revenge. During the regular season, Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts threw an NFL record 49 touchdowns.
The Boston Red Sox ended their 86-year championship drought with a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series after a miraculous comeback in the ALCS against the New York Yankees. Barry Bonds hit his 700th career home run during the regular season, joining Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. Although, like USC’s BCS national title, that would go down in the record books with a controversial asterisk.
Keeping in line with controversial figures, Lance Armstrong won his sixth consecutive Tour de France.
Michael Phelps won eight medals at the 2004 Olympics in Greece, with six gold medals and two bronze, making him the first athlete to win eight medals at an Olympics not being boycotted. On the track, future icon Usain Bolt failed to qualify for the second round of the 200m dash. He finished fifth in his heat.
The Detroit Pistons were fresh off an NBA title in the summer of 2004 after topping the Los Angeles Lakers, in six games.
UConn became the first school to win a men’s and women’s basketball national championship in the same year.
Can the Trojans reign again?
USC’s run at the top of the college football world would get one more crack at a national championship in 2005, but as the balance of national title power shifted toward the SEC over the last years of the BCS era, USC’s grip on the national title race started to loosen. Carroll and the Trojans would go on to win three consecutive Rose Bowl games after their loss to Texas in the BCS National Championship Game in 2005, and they did it with records of 11-2 or 12-1. It just so happened USC would fall victim to the one bad loss knocking them behind the national championship pack each year. In 2006, it was a loss to UCLA in the regular-season finale. In 2007, it was a loss to Jim Harbaugh and Stanford that initially knocked USC off course. In 2008, it was Oregon State that upset No. 1 USC and the Trojans couldn’t quite make up the ground the rest of the way.
The Carroll era ended on a winning note in 2009 with a victory in the Emerald Bowl with a 9-4 record as the Trojans head coach moved back to the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. It also ended in controversy as USC was slapped with sanctions tied to Reggie Bush, which vacated Bush’s Heisman Trophy and the BCS national title from the 2004 season. Lane Kiffin was named the head coach of the Trojans, a job he held for three full seasons and was relieved of at the airport in the middle fo the 2013 season. Steve Sarkisian took on the job in 2014 and was let go in the midst of the 2015 season, leaving the job to Clay Helton. Helton coached the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State in 2016 with Sam Darnold taking over at quarterback, but the promising 2017 season once again saw a couple of stumbles along the way to prevent USC from having a shot to compete in its first College Football Playoff. The season ended with a loss in the Cotton Bowl to Ohio State and was followed up last season with a 5-7 record, the first losing season for the Trojans since 2000, the year before the hiring of Carroll.
Although USC had a couple of strong years under Helton recently, the power of the Pac-12 has shifted more to Oregon and then Washington in the brief playoff era. Utah, a team in USC’s division, has named the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 this season. The pressure is on at USC to get things rolling again, especially after a rough 2018 season and a bumpy offseason. But the odds are USC will rise again in the future. How soon that happens remains to be seen as the Trojans look to end their current national title drought.