ESPN Network: | |  ABCSports |  EXPN |  INSIDER  |  FANTASY

On the Mike: Keeping watch
By Mike Diegnan

Seven games at home, 17 returning starters, a healthy Carson Palmer ... This was supposed to be the year for USC.

A 3-0 start and No. 7 ranking gave credence that the Trojans were indeed back.

 Paul Hackett
Paul Hackett is 17-13 as USC's head coach.
Less than a month later, the message boards aren't ringing with how great this team is. Instead, they predict how ugly it might get for the men from Troy. With No. 12 Oregon visiting the Coliseum this Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), the now 3-2 Trojans face the possibility of losing their first three Pac-10 games for the first time since 1957.

"You know at some point of the season, you are going to stumble," said head coach Paul Hackett, who came to USC in '98 after five seasons as the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive coordinator. "You don't want to admit it as a coach, but you know at some point you are not going to play your best."

Wow, has a coach ever admitted that his team would lose? That fans shouldn't expect 11 quality game each fall? Would John McKay or John Robinson have uttered those words? Well, maybe when McKay coached in Tampa, but not at Southern Cal.

Image is very important, and when you admit failure is a possibility, it leads to acceptance. Championship teams win when they are not at their best. That's why Nebraska survived its trip to Notre Dame earlier this year.

The reverse is true at USC, which is why Hackett might be typing up a new résumé in January. Trojan alumni expect more than the 17-13 record Hackett has produced in his two-plus years. John Robinson was let go before Hackett after a five-year record of 37-21-1 that included three bowl victories. Hackett lost his lone bowl appearance.

In the USC media guide, Hackett is described as "innovative" and one of the "game's most progressive offensive coaches." Yet, for all their talent, the Trojans mustered only 10 rushing yards and committed five turnovers in last week's 31-15 home loss to Arizona.

With fans booing them, the Trojans were anemic on offense, defense and special teams. In the first quarter, the Wildcats had as many touchdowns (three) as USC had first downs. The first 15 minutes of play essentially were the game, with Arizona holding a 21-0 lead on a 75-yard scoring pass and an 80-yard TD run. The score wouldn't be nearly as pretty if not for a Southern Cal TD with 29 seconds to go. Of course, kickers David Newbury and John Wall contributed to the misery by missing two field goals and having two extra points blocked.

Hackett calls the current problems a "funk." A funk doesn't take into account 19 penalties, nine turnovers, eight sacks and three missed field goals in two games.

There are big problems for the men of Troy and there's no Helen ready to rescue them. With games against Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame remaining, there is no guarantee that the Trojans can win the four games they still need to qualify for the postseason. Another 6-6 season would leave USC likely with one option: hiring its third coach in five years.

Of course, Hackett is not alone. All around the country, blood-thirsty fans are dancing on their keyboards in chat rooms and screaming on their phones to talk show hosts. With programs like Virginia Tech and Kansas State enjoying annual success after decades of futility, alumni and boosters won't accept losing seasons at major programs anymore.

Before the season, the only way it looked like Notre Dame's Bob Davie could have called off the hounds was by calling an exorcist. But with a 3-2 start and a winnable schedule the rest of the way, a 9-2 season -- and possible BCS bowl bid -- Davie could be looking at a contract extension.

Mike DuBose is not so lucky. Alabama had such high expectations this season that it will take a miracle for DuBose to keep the axe from falling on him this season after delaying it with a Top 10 finish last year.

Georgia coach Jim Donnan also had a team with the potential to run the table in the SEC. Instead, the Bulldogs fizzled against South Carolina. Last week, Georgia fans rushed the field and tore down both goalposts when the Dawgs knocked off 2-3 Tennessee. It might take wins over Florida and Auburn later this season to keep those same fans from pulling down something else.

Two of Hackett's Pac-10 rivals have also felt the wrath of angry boosters. But Arizona's Dick Tomey and Arizona State's Dick Snyder have rebounded nicely. The 4-1 Wildcats made its Top 25 debut this week at No. 22, while voters have been slow to recognize the Sun Devils despite their 4-1 start.

Part of the coaching profession is the knowledge that you will be forced to uproot your family on a regular basis. For Hackett, a continued run at futility could force him to move for the 10th time in his 31-year football coaching career.

His record against USC's top two rivals won't help him either: 1-4 against Notre Dame (after blowing a 21-0 lead last year) and 1-1 against cross-town UCLA. Another 6-6 season would certainly signal the end to his tenure in L.A.

For a number of coaches at big-time programs, that could be the case this off-season.

Mike Diegnan is the editor of

USC at a crossroads

Jenkins leads upstart 'Cats past sliding USC

Simonton (234 yards) and Oregon State drop Trojans

The Sultan of Troy: McCullough shines in first start

On the Mike: European bound

On the Mike: Tomlinson's chance

On the Mike: Rudderless ships

On the Mike: Pac-10's fight

On the Mike: Irish eyes are smiling

 Petros Papadakis punches through Arizona's stingy defense for a TD.
avi: 1010 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Petros Papadakis drives the ball hard for the 2-yard TD.
avi: 952 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Sandy Fletcher's fumble recovery puts USC on the board against Penn State.
avi: 856 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Troy Polamalu picks off Rashard Casey's pass and goes 43 yards for the TD.
avi: 810 k
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1