Forum Spin Doctor
RALPH D. RUSSO
NEW YORK - Southern California is a win away from returning to the national title game.
The Trojans moved into second place in the Bowl Championship Series standings Sunday, passing idle Michigan on the strength of a 44-24 victory over Notre Dame and closing in on a matchup with undefeated Ohio State in the title game.
USC plays crosstown-rival UCLA on Saturday and a victory would likely lock up the Trojans' third consecutive appearance in the BCS title game. The Trojans have already locked up the Pac-10's automatic BCS bid, but playing in the Rose Bowl would be a letdown for USC this season.
"I think we're a pretty good team right now," USC coach Pete Carroll said after beating Notre Dame. "We'll play anybody, anywhere."
First-place Ohio State has already sealed up its trip to Glendale, Ariz., for the Jan. 8 championship game. The final BCS standings and bowl pairings will be announced next Sunday.
Michigan managed to hold onto second place after losing 42-39 at Ohio State, but the Wolverines' lead over USC was razor thin.
USC's convincing victory over the Fighting Irish helped the Trojans increase their cushion over Michigan in the coaches' poll and Harris poll, and boosted USC's computer rating ahead of the Wolverines'.
USC's BCS average was .946. Michigan's was .922.
The polls make up two-thirds of a BCS average and the computer ratings account for the other third.
Florida, which plays in the Southeastern Conference title game against Arkansas on Saturday, is in fourth place with an average of .890. The Gators need a win and USC to stumble against UCLA, but even then it will be a close call between them and Michigan for the second spot in the title game.
LSU is fifth, followed by Louisville and Wisconsin.
Unbeaten Boise State moved up to eighth place and will become the second team from outside the original BCS conferences to play in one of the four big-dollar bowl games. The Broncos will likely receive a bid to the Fiesta Bowl.
Arkansas is ninth and can earn the SEC's automatic bid by beating Florida.
Notre Dame dropped five spots to 10th place, which means the Fighting Irish are no longer in position to earn an automatic BCS bid. They needed to be in the top eight for that to happen. However, Notre Dame remains eligible to receive an at-large bid by finishing in the top 12. And if the Irish are eligible, they're a great bet to get picked by either the Rose, Sugar or Orange.
USC lost last year's championship game 41-38 to Texas at the Rose Bowl and won the 2004 national championship with a 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Three years ago, the Trojans missed out on the BCS championship game, but won the AP's part of the national title by beating Michigan 28-14 in the Rose Bowl.
That three-year run, during which the Trojans lost only two games, was powered by quarterback Matt Leinart and tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Those guys, and a host of other Trojans from last season's team, are in the NFL now.
John David Booty has stepped in at quarterback, receiver Dwayne Jarrett has developed into the offense's biggest star and USC's defense has been one of the best in the country.
And if the Trojans can make it eight consecutive wins against UCLA, it's USC vs. Ohio State for the national title.