LOS ANGELES -- It wouldn't be accurate to say USC coach Pete Carroll is annoyed by the question. He's bored with it, sure. But it's more that he wishes he could get everyone else to think like him, to fix their faulty wiring and understand the "USC Way."
No, USC doesn't need to anoint one go-to running back out of the talented crew of six vying for precious carries. Or even two. Or three. The Trojans will do what they want to do, and the observing horde just should understand it's the right way to do things because, well, look at the win-loss ledger.
None of the skeptical scribblers or perturbed pundits have coached a team to six consecutive Pac-10 titles, 11-win seasons and top-four final rankings. So they should agree more and opine less, Carroll's tone suggests.
"It's never been a problem for us," Carroll said. "It's a problem for everyone else that they can't figure out why we do it that way."
Carroll likes the diversity of styles. He likes keeping guys fresh. And hungry. It's a part of the culture of competition he espouses at USC, and, so far at least, there haven't been any significant ruptures in the established groupthink, other than the defection of Emmanuel Moody to Florida in 2007.
"Coaches are going to make the right decision," sophomore Joe McKnight said. "It's going to be a hard decision for them, but we know they'll make the best decision for the team."
McKnight and the other five backs, none of whom are seniors, each earned Parade or USA Today All-American honors in high school. Actually, McKnight is one of four who earned both.
Digest that for a second. It's mind-boggling if you follow recruiting.
McKnight is a sure thing to get priority touches every game. His game-breaking elusiveness and ability to split out wide as a receiver -- like a fellow by the name of Reggie Bush used to do -- make him the multidimensional threat that drives defenses to distraction. Witness the 206 all-purpose yards he rolled up in the Rose Bowl victory over Illinois.
Even though he sat out spring practices, junior Stafon Johnson probably stands beside McKnight as first among equals. He is the leading returning rusher and was, at times, spectacular last season, gaining 673 yards and averaging 6.9 yards per carry. A midseason foot injury derailed his ascension in 2007 and thrust him back into the muddle.
"I can get you with power or speed -- or a mixture of both," Johnson said. "Vision is my biggest [asset]. Whatever you want, I can get it for you."
I can get you with power or speed -- or a mixture of both. Vision is my biggest [asset]. Whatever you want, I can get it for you.
-- USC RB Stafon Johnson
If it sounds like Johnson wants the ball, he does. But he thinks the Trojans' depth actually benefits him.
"Having so many people just as good as you makes the competition be at a high level, and it helps you to work hard every day," he said. "When you don't have that, you have a tendency to lay back because you know you have the position. Here, during the time you slack off, another guy can step in. You always have that in the back of your mind, and it kind of helps you as a player."
The player who seems to have gained the most ground is 225-pound junior Allen Bradford, who was a standout during spring practices and has continued to shine.
Then there's sophomore C.J. Gable, who was at the top of the pecking order until an abdominal injury waylaid him in 2007, and a pair of redshirt freshmen, 235-pound bruiser Broderick Green and Marc Tyler, who's surged of late.
Most Division I-A teams would love to have any of the six. And don't think other Pac-10 teams don't eyeball the group and wonder about transfer possibilities.
The USC coaches, meanwhile, work hard to insist that juggling the group is merely part of the Trojan Way. Not surprisingly, they have yet to say: "Yes, we have too many good running backs." Or, "Some of these guys are going to play only special teams or late in blowout games."
And Carroll waves away the notion of needing to establish a firm pecking order with a lead, go-to back getting the majority of the carries. He likes his system for one major reason.
"It's worked," he said, "as long as we give them opportunities to do what they can do. As long as they know they've got a chance. My job is to keep showing them they've got a chance."
Said one running back: "It's all about competing. It's how confident you are and knowing your abilities. I know my talents. I didn't care what running backs came to USC. I just knew I wanted to come here."
That running back, however, was Moody, speaking to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2006. A year later, he bolted for Florida.
It seems reasonable to guess that whoever comes out on the short end of a two-, three- or four-back rotation will seek his fortune elsewhere, either at another position or at another school.
Still, with the pecking order seemingly in daily flux, the party line is the team comes first and things will work out for the best through good old competition.
Said McKnight: "We're competitive, but we're family first."
Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org.