LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans were playing their best football at the conclusion of the 2011 season, but the Trojans were ineligible to play in a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions that removed any possibility of testing where they stood against the other elite teams across the country.
Just because USC couldn't play in a bowl game, it didn't stop the speculation from those who wondered how the Trojans would have fared. The chatter increased after the BCS title game between Alabama and LSU, one which featured a lack of explosive offense. USC quarterback Matt Barkley even received a lot of attention for a Twitter post he made during the game when he summed up the feelings of many viewers -- "bored."
It certainly is understandable to wonder how the USC offense would have done against the SEC defenses. It's not like the title game was an offensive aberration either -- when the two teams met earlier in the season, the game was an all-field-goal affair.
With all due respect to the SEC foes -- and one has to give that respect considering the stranglehold they've had on the BCS championship in recent years -- the past decade also has shown that the Trojans are one of the few teams out there capable of breaking the conference's hold.
Most people will point to the Trojans offensive prowess as a primary reason why USC is able to legitimately challenge for the title, and that's a valid point. When the USC offense is humming, there is a certain level of sophistication present that isn't often found in college football.
However, one of the points that is often missed is how the Trojans offense has operated at the highest level when the element of physical play is also part of the equation.
The finish to the 2011 season for USC was very similar to the way the Trojans ended their 2002 season. That Trojans team was rising under a second-year coach in Pete Carroll and had a quarterback in Carson Palmer who was the hottest player around.
That squad ended up in the Orange Bowl to play Big Ten co-champion Iowa, which was led by quarterback Brad Banks, who had finished as the runner-up to Palmer for the Heisman Trophy. There had been talk leading up to the game about how the powerful Iowa offensive line was going to control the game, but it was the Trojans who had six scoring drives of 61 yards or longer on the way to a 38-17 victory.
One of the turning points of the season for that team was the emergence of tailback Justin Fargas, a tough runner who pounded the middle of defenses yet was fast enough to have been a former state sprint champion in high school. Fargas brought an intangible of intensity that resonated throughout the entire team and the Trojans outscored their last three opponents -- UCLA, Notre Dame and Iowa – 134-51.
From 2003-05, the Trojans went on one of the greatest runs that college football has ever seen. Some of the results might be stricken from the record books now, but what happened on the field -- 34 straight wins, a pair of AP national titles and a BCS championship -- was impressive by any statistical measure. The run included an NCAA-record 16 victories over top-25 teams, including a Rose Bowl victory over Big Ten champ Michigan in 2004 and a BCS title game victory over Big 12 champ Oklahoma in 2005.
The offenses on those teams were simply overwhelming. The 2005 offense was the first that featured a 3,000-yard passer, a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers.
When most football fans think of those offenses, they probably think of Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush first, but it's always important to remember the physical role that LenDale White brought to the table. White was the hammer and -- for all the success those offenses had -- he was the one who set the Pac-10 career rushing touchdown record with 52. He accomplished that it in only three seasons while sharing a backfield with a pair of Heisman winners.
The Troians also have gone on the road to SEC stadiums and shown that they can play physical football in those settings.
The 2003 team opened the season on the road against Auburn, a team that featured future NFL players such as Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Karlos Dansby. The Trojans dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage, forced three turnovers and went home with a 23-0 shutout victory. It's not like that was a team of paper Tigers either, as Auburn went 13-0 with a Sugar Bowl title the next season, finishing No. 2 to the Trojans in the polls.
In 2006, USC traveled to Arkansas for a matchup with the Razorbacks and their dynamic running back duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. The Trojans controlled the ball, forced five turnovers and won the game 50-14, a year after USC had blasted Arkansas 70-17 at the Coliseum.
Does any of this mean the Trojans would have been guaranteed success against either Alabama or LSU in the BCS title game last year? Of course not. It's all speculation. But what it does say is that USC has heard the talk before, about how the "sushi-eaters" from the West Coast won't be able to hang with the boys who play in the "power" conferences.
The USC offense can be dazzling, no doubt about it. Barkley is likely to put up huge passing numbers while Robert Woods and Marqise Lee certainly will look to prove that they are the best pass catching duo around. Just don't be surprised if any of that success also includes a bit of smash-mouth style as well. That's been a pretty good recipe for success for the Trojans in recent seasons, and they certainly will look to duplicate it in 2012. And if things work out, perhaps they'll have a chance to play smash-mouth football with an SEC team.