LOS ANGELES -- A national columnist created a stir before the start of this year's college football season when he said USC's football program has "underachieved" under coach Pete Carroll.
For thin-skinned USC supporters, the statement struck a nerve. They pointed to the Trojans' back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004 and the program's streak of seven consecutive Pac-10 championships and seven in a row BCS bowl game appearances.
Definitely the type of numbers most football programs can only dream about.
But for USC, the standard for winning is much higher than most.
Since the Trojans began their current remarkable run, which took off in Carroll's second season as coach in 2002, they expect to win every game and when they don't, it's always college football's biggest story of the week.
"To be honest, every loss that we've had sticks out," said USC offensive lineman Jeff Byers, who has been a part of the Trojans' program for six years due to a medical redshirt year. "Every [defeat] that I've been a part of is still clear in my mind. You just remember those losses."
Which is easy to do when you consider that the Trojans have won 81 of their last 88 games with the combined total of points in the losses adding up to just 26. And, in each one of those defeats, USC had a chance to win or send the game into overtime with its final possession.
"All of the losses are tough," Byers said. "I can't pick out one that's worse than another. Losing never feels good, especially playing here. All you can do is remember that any game you can be beat. Even if you go 11-0, that doesn't mean anything if you don't go 12-0 playing for USC. "
Here's a breakdown of USC's last seven defeats: In 2003, the Trojans lost by three points in triple overtime at California; by three points in the final 19 seconds to Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl BCS Championship game, by two points on a failed two-point conversion pass with seven seconds to play at Oregon State and by four points at UCLA when John David Booty was intercepted on USC's final drive in 2006, by one point at home to Stanford and a touchdown at Oregon in 2007, and by six points at Oregon State in 2008.
If you noticed, six of those defeats came against teams from the Pac-10, which is rarely regarded as a powerhouse conference around the country.
It's also the main source behind USC's "underachievers" tag, because if not for conference play stumbles, the Trojans could easily be playing for their sixth national championship in seven years this season.
"Although some people don't think so, but we play in a tough conference," Byers said. "Our conference plays us really really tough. In any game, you can get beat because there really aren't any pushovers. There's always one or two teams in the conference that struggle every year but they don't stay bad for long. The conference is pretty solid from front to back and that shows.
"I just know that when we go out of conference, we've shown that we can play with anybody. But in conference, we always have some tough games. Part of it is that our opponents really know us well and usually are ready to play their best game against us."
The Trojans can certainly count on that this week when they travel north to face Washington, which is coached by former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
A matchup Carroll lectured about to his team minutes after the Trojans' come-from-behind 18-15 victory over Ohio State last week in Columbus.
"We see teams every week with a big emotional victory, and then the next week they don't look like the same football team, and that happens in sports," Carroll said. "We went right at that in the locker room [following USC's win over the Buckeyes] to make sure we set the tempo. We had a lot of fun with it in the game, and then we went right into what's at hand because I don't want to miss this opportunity to play really well again, and come back and get a win."
A year ago, USC had 12 days off after beating Ohio State, 35-3, at the Coliseum and then lost at Oregon State, 27-21. After the game, Carroll blamed himself for not having the Trojans ready to play.
A mistake Carroll has worked hard to avoid this week.
"You can tell that he's learned from past experiences," Byers said about Carroll, who has a 90-15 record in nine seasons at USC. "Guys have a tendency to get lackadaisical and then lose that approach to prepare for every game like it's a championship game. Coach Carroll's philosophy is to prepare Monday through Friday like you are playing the best team in the world. You have to be ready to execute."
Said Carroll: "It really has to do with the respect that we bring to the preparation process that makes the difference. We got to make sure that that's there."
Coaching against Sarkisian and Washington's defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who worked as an assistant at USC for six seasons, only adds to Carroll's motivation for Saturday's game.
"They know a lot about us. We know a lot about them," Carroll said about facing his former USC assistants. "I don't think anybody has an advantage ...
"It's fun from our vantage point because it has to be very detailed and intricate subtleties of the adjustments that we'll do and they'll do. It's fun to see it unfold for us and how they do and how we adapt to all of that. There is a gamesmanship that just because of the background and the knowledge it's different than other match ups. But that doesn't make the game different ... So I look forward to this, and can't wait to get it started, and it's a big deal."
And Carroll knows that it will be even a bigger deal if history repeats and the Trojans lose to another Pac-10 team.