As USC gets it in gear, yes, title-game talk is possible

Chris Dufresne takes time out (he gets three per half) each Friday during the season to answer questions on college football. This week's topics include the Trojans, the Beavs, and a burning question about West Virginia-Baylor.

Unbuckling the mailbag:

Question: Put down the Trojan Kool-Aid. Title-game hopes? Now, if you're talking about Alamo Bowl title hopes, then we're in the realm of reality.

Tim Donovan

Answer: For the record, I much prefer Trojan Tang because it's easier to mix in my 42-ounce Tommy Trojan thermos with my giant USC No. 1 foam finger.

Except I graduated from Cal State Fullerton and married into Stanford.

And hey, don't knock the Alamo Bowl. That would be a big upgrade for USC players who have never participated in a postseason game staged in a football stadium. (The Emerald Bowl was at a tricked-up baseball yard in San Francisco.)

And what I was foam-finger pointing out about USC was a path for the Trojans to get back in the title-game conversation following the horrific seven-point defeat at top-20 Stanford.

The fine folks at Mailbag, including dozens of technicians, fact-checkers, rewrite men, makeup artists and gaffers, prefer to look at the positive.

USC certainly has the talent and schedule strength to climb back into contention, although it didn't look good when the Trojans were down, 14-0, early against Utah.

The Trojans played a sloppy, mistake-filled game in Salt Lake City, but still showed the resilience and fortitude to rally back from the abyss.

I see through my myopic kaleidoscope USC getting better as the year goes on, which is what happened last year on the way to 10 wins. The Trojans right now remind me of a Lamborghini running on peanut butter oil, sputtering between gear shifts.

Q: Oregon State is No. 1 in two BCS computer polls (Colley & Massey), Notre Dame No. 2. As if the BCS system wasn't already a joke.

@ReisNielsen

A: Breaking news since you fired off that tweet of indignation about Beaver Nation: Oregon State is now No. 1 in three of the six BCS computers. Anderson-Hester has also checked in with Corvallis on top.

Mike Riley is going to go broke buying In-N-Out burgers.

The stock answer for these early-season poll anomalies is that rankings really don't mean anything until mid-October.

But guess what? It's almost mid-October. It's not that early. The first BCS standings will be released a week from Sunday.

I love what Oregon State has already done this season and say the rankings are justified in the sense the Beavers are undefeated with a huge home win over then-ranked Wisconsin and a big road win at still-ranked UCLA.

Oregon State followed up with another win at improved Arizona. It's not the Beavers' fault they weren't ranked going into the season.

Oregon State's BCS computer numbers should continue to dazzle if the Beavers keep winning, but the problem is going to be the polls. Oregon State is still only No. 14 in the USA Today index, with the first Harris poll yet to be released.

That puts Oregon State at No. 12 in the latest simulated standings produced by BCS Guru.

Notre Dame's computer ranking also will take care of itself. If the Irish keep winning they will deserve every bit of No. 2. Notre Dame should get a real test from Miami at Chicago's Soldier Field on Saturday and also has remaining games against Stanford, Oklahoma and USC.

As if the BCS wasn't already a joke?

Hey, it's had us in stitches since 1998.

Q: Your article last week ended with a reference to burning "coaches." …Believe you meant that reference as the tradition to burn "couches." We attended the game with our son and it appears neither happened, although the Baylor coach might feel otherwise.

Kathleen Enright-Reicht

A: Very funny, (West) Virginia. And I must say you were the one and only person to catch the typo I had in last week's Rankman comments on the Mountaineers. Yes, I was referring to couches, not coaches, and I am heartened to hear neither was burned last week in West Virginia's 70-63 win over Baylor.

You could say, without any need for correction, that both defenses definitely got torched.

And while West Virginia has never had a history of burning "coaches," you guys had no problem hanging Bobby Bowden in effigy back in the 1970s. He then left for Florida State and turned out to be a pretty good coach, according to his bio at the College Football Hall of Fame.

Q: I read your columns each week with bemusement, watching you mentally contort yourself trying to explain why LSU is really such a lousy team.

Roger Bowers

Whittier

A: Thanks and welcome to this week's contort report: Anyone with eyeballs who watched LSU play Towson last Saturday night knows there is something wrong with this team right now.

The Tigers might have more fault lines than Whittier.

LSU seemed uninterested in the Towson game, understandably, but that forced Les Miles to play starters deep into a game that should have been finished by walk-ons from Ponchatoula.

That performance came a week after LSU won at Auburn, 12-10.

I am thoroughly bemused that USA Today voting coaches, who seem attached to LSU like a boy to his puppy, refused to drop the Tigers from their No. 3 spot.

Any other team, from any other conference, would have been punished for such a lackluster performance against a 1-AA team.

That said, LSU is only one win at Florida on Saturday from making everything better. But it's clear to me LSU cannot repeat as SEC champion or get back to the BCS title game without an attitude adjustment and improved play from first-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Q: Is Arizona State a contender in the Pac-12 South? With Utah seemingly falling off a bit, seems like they are USC's main challenger.

Braden Wolf

A: Contender? Arizona State is leading the Pac-12 South!

Todd Graham seemed like such an odd hire. He was reviled in Pittsburgh, leaving after one year, and came to Tempe with more baggage than Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive.

Arizona State has been one of this year's surprises. Guess which team has the fewest penalties in the Pac-12, with only 21 in five games?

OK, we know Dennis Erickson and Vontaze Burfict both left the same season, but this is quite a discipline upgrade.

Arizona State averaged 79.8 penalty yards per game last year, worst in the Pac-12.

Suddenly, ASU is No. 7 nationally, allowing only 31 yards per game. In weight-loss terms, that's like losing a tire around your waist.

I don't know how ASU is doing it. The Sun Devils pulled off a shocking win over USC last year but lost five straight to end the year at 6-7.

I do think the Sun Devils can challenge USC in the South. Arizona State is 4-1 and already leads the division at 2-0 with impressive wins against Utah (37-7) and Cal (27-17). The Sun Devils crushed Illinois and lost at Missouri by only four.

"We needed that success for these guys to believe in this crazy stuff we're doing," Graham said after last week's win against Cal. "We haven't done anything yet. But I know that we're going to get better and better and better."

Taylor Kelly, the redshirt sophomore from Idaho, has exceeded expectations. At No. 16 nationally, he was the highest-ranked Pac-12 quarterback entering play this weekend.

Arizona State is off this weekend, plays at Colorado next Thursday and then hits the prove-it section with home games against Oregon and UCLA followed by games at Oregon State and USC.

We should know more then.

Q: Do you foresee Oregon or USC losing before they face each other in November?

James Bravo

A: Let's go to the schedule card:

USC plays at Washington, hosts Colorado, then plays at Arizona.

You would think Washington would be USC's toughest test of the three considering the Huskies recently defeated Stanford, the team that beat USC.

Oregon hosts Washington on Saturday, then plays at Arizona State and hosts Colorado.

I'm giving Oregon the win over Washington because the game is in Eugene, but at Arizona State could prove one of the Ducks' toughest tests of the season.

So I say there's a good chance USC and Oregon won't lose before they meet Nov. 3 at the Coliseum, but it's certainly not a lock.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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