Going out prematurely, but on top

LOS ANGELES -- The Pac-12 should have rolled out a big podium and presented UCLA with its South division trophy on the floor of the Coliseum after USC’s 50-0 win Saturday night. Commissioner Larry Scott could have handed Rick Neuheisel a microphone for his acceptance speech.

Wouldn’t that have been fun? The perfect snapshot of the farce this conference foisted on us all this year.

Then again, UCLA still gets to “represent” the South next week in Eugene, Ore., another chance to make the conference look ridiculous.

USC players and coaches might watch that game Friday night, have a chuckle or two along with the rest of the country. They won’t be playing in it, of course, even though it could have been an electric rematch. The Pac-12 lined up behind the NCAA and stripped the Trojans of any opportunity to play postseason football two Junes ago.

So, Saturday was the final statement the Trojans get to make this year when it looks like they have so much more left to say. At least their final phrase was definitive.

“Neuheisel said it best. They closed the gap,” USC defensive tackle DaJohn Harris said. “I don’t see it, but that’s what they said.”

USC isn’t just the best team in this division right now. It looks like it will sit on top of the thing for a decade or two.

But who cares about that? By the end of the season it was probably the best team west of the Rockies. Let this thing play out a little longer and the Trojans might have given any team in the country a battle. It’s rare you see a team improve in such a straight line, week by week, from mediocre in early fall to a machine by Thanksgiving.

Heading into next season, if a few juniors (or one in particular) come back, USC (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12) will be a national title contender. Even if all four of them bolt, they should be Top 15 with a shot at something magical.

Wouldn’t you have loved to see USC wrap up this sensational 2011 season with a bowl game against Arkansas or Georgia or one of those other SEC teams that everyone is always telling us is so tough? Instead, we had to hold our hands over our eyes and peek at Saturday’s sad spectacle of a once-vibrant rivalry.

I don’t feel sorry for USC’s players any longer. You got the sense all year they were having a blast showing everybody USC is still USC, that no matter what the NCAA does, it can’t make them play slower or dumber or with less pride. And, what’s more, they liked each other, which helped them enjoy it that much more.

“This is the closest team I’ve ever been on,” said left tackle Matt Kalil.

The Senior Night ceremony Saturday was nice, but short. It was mostly walk-ons and special-teams players who got to come out of the tunnel and hug coach Lane Kiffin. The core of this team isn’t going anywhere. In fact, many of this team’s best players will be juniors and sophomores next year, their learning curves just beginning to climb.

By early in the third quarter, USC fans were chanting “One more year!” and Matt Barkley had to hear it. He was backed up near his own end zone, just a few dozen yards for the student section. In the fourth quarter, after the defense stuffed UCLA on fourth down to preserve the shutout, Barkley sprinted 40 yards onto the field, leapt and chest-bumped safety T.J. McDonald.

Barkley came to USC because he wanted to play in the NFL and after Saturday’s performance -- 35-for-42 for 432 yards and six touchdowns -- he looks like he could have left the Coliseum and driven to a hotel near the closest NFL stadium and started Sunday. He doesn’t have much left to prove at this level. Even Kiffin expects him to go.

But, if he does leave, he will feel it somewhere deep, the opportunity he’s leaving behind. The love from the fans in these past few games reminded him. The crackling chemistry he’s found with Marqise Lee and Robert Woods will tease him if he goes. It looks like they’re playing a video game out there.

It takes a certain kind of person to perform at the highest level without the hint of a reward at the end. This team had every excuse imaginable at hand -- transfers, the lack of a bowl game, negative publicity -- and didn’t seem to care.

So, yeah, one team of champions did walk off the field Saturday night.