This story begins, as all college football narratives do, with Megamind.
The eponymous protagonist/antagonist/hero/anti-hero/little blue man in a cape/audience foil of the 2010 Dreamworks film is obsessed with defeating his rival, Metro Man, and seizing control of Metropolis. When one of his elaborate plots works, and Metro Man is killed, Megamind is free to cavort around the city with reckless abandon, doing anything and everything that he pleases. But he shortly finds that without a counterpart, without a yin to his yang, the joy found in his success begins to wane, replaced by an emptiness that developed only when his nemesis vanished from his life.
The movie explored an idea that is inherent in even the most light-hearted entertainment: rivalries make the world go round. Without the Galactic Empire, Luke Skywalker is a farmer on a backwater planet. Without The Party, Winston Smith is your average middle class Brit. And without the undead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is just Buffy the Hallucinating High School Student.
The writers behind Buffy coined the term "Big Bad" to describe the show’s recurring villains. Each year, a new "Big Bad" would present itself and they’d grind their metaphorical muddy boots into the world’s metaphorical suede couch until BAMF Buffy Summers vanquished them at season’s end. The Big Bad, like Metro Man, was instrumental to the main character’s development, if not existence. Beyond Buffy, the Big Bad could be the episodic, seasonal or chronically recurring antagonist, but their role was defined and important. Tony Montana had the right idea, and politely explained as much: "You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your [expletive] fingers and say, ‘That's the bad guy.’"
The Pac-10/12 has spent the last three seasons searching for a Big Bad. There’s Oregon, who, between three consecutive conference championships, the nation’s top facilities, a bottomless war chest, a scarily rabid fan base and the Willie Lyles scandal, has tried mightily to fill the void. And there’s Stanford, who could, in the past couple of years, boast a top 10 program in addition to its untouchable academics and squeaky clean NCAA violations record. Resenting either program would be easy enough. Plenty do. But despite both schools’ modern accomplishments and prior history, let’s be real: the rich kid with a puffed-out chest and the teacher’s pet that grew some cojones don’t compare to the OG super villain. They don’t compare to Tony Montana. They don’t compare to USC.
See, before 2009, it was easy, because the Trojans fit the super villain script perfectly. Their post-millennium success is such that, when it came time to name college football’s team of the decade for the 2000s, no shortage of publications rushed to hand the Trojans the crown. Three Heisman winners, two claimed national championships, dozens of players sent to the NFL—after the drudgery that was 1990s USC football, the winning culture and subsequent elitism that had previously defined the Trojans was back. Calling them brash would be like calling the Kaiser a bridge-building moderate. I’m a lifelong Yankees fan; I root for a team whose response to being called the "Evil Empire" was to play Darth Vader’s theme song during lineup introductions. I know overconfidence and entitlement when I see it, and Troy’s denizens possessed both in bunches. But I’m not hating—that swagger only comes after years of sustained success. And not just success in the form of wins, but dominant victories aided by a taste for destruction that would make General Sherman blush. That was Pete Carroll’s USC. They were unabashed villains. Like their baseball counterparts, they went full heel and never looked back.
The epicenter of Troy’s reign was the West Coast, but its power stretched nationwide. I grew up in New York watching the Big 10 without any natural inclination toward the Trojans one way or another, and yet one of the indelible moments from my teenage years was watching the 2006 Rose Bowl and, as Vince Young scampered into the end zone for the game-winning score, having a friend jump on my back to celebrate. We cheered, we ran in circles, we went gorillas. We had little reason to get behind Texas, but they were playing USC, and, well, you just rooted against USC. You had to, because unless you had a damn good reason to support them, there was no backing this Evil Empire.
USC set an impossible standard. Oregon and Stanford never stood a chance.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. USC couldn’t keep it up. The Trojans finished the 2008 season ranked No. 2/3 in the polls but lost 11 players to the 2009 NFL draft. That season, they started a true freshman at quarterback for the first time in their history. Another top-5 recruiting class had made its way to Watts, but the team’s youth, combined with the rise of the conference as a whole, led to a 5-4 Pac-10 record, highlighted by a 55-21 loss at home to Stanford, one of the worst defeats in program history.
Then the wheels came off.
Sanctions were incoming, and everyone knew it. Carroll bounced to the NFL. Lane Kiffin was hired away from Tennessee in the dead of night. Mike Garrett was fired and replaced by Pat Haden. The NCAA dropped the hammer. Bowl bans, scholarship limits, vacated wins and awards—in no time at all, USC went from national powerhouse and perennial championship contender to a program in need of an image makeover and overall revitalization.
The Pac-10 lost its Big Bad.
Each successful BCS conference has one; the weakest do not. The Big 12 has Texas. The SEC has Alabama. The ACC has suffered because Florida State and Miami, who have traditionally filled that role, have failed to in recent years. The Big East is just a cute little thing that sits in the corner, and we shouldn’t scare it with talk of bad guys. With USC down, there was no villain in the conference. Oregon couldn’t fill the role; Stanford couldn’t come close. And while some may disregard the need for a bad guy, I’d posit that the college football experience is not nearly as interesting without an omnipotent conference superpower that must be defeated. It goes back to Megamind, Buffy and Tony Montana. We need the counterpart.
That identity was part of USC’s essence, but the Trojans had not, in the 2000s, seen the other side of the pillow. There was no omnipotent conference superpower holding them down; they were that omnipotent conference superpower. And while no one would prove able to fill USC’s role in the conference, someone could step in and show the Trojans how the other side felt.
That someone was Jim Harbaugh, and he owned the role. Lane Kiffin spoke this week about how the USC-Stanford rivalry has gotten a tad bit, shall we say, "friendlier" over the past year, a not-so-subtle hint at the tension between Carroll and Harbaugh that highlighted the rivalry from 2007-2009. For Harbaugh, USC was the target from day one, and Harbaugh knew that the Cardinal’s ascension as a program would largely be judged by how they did against USC. Notre Dame has become painfully mediocre, and while winning Big Game is nice, no one measures football success in terms of beating Cal. And so, before his team even played a snap in his first season, Harbaugh issued the infamous proclamation that Stanford would bow before "no man, no program." He might as well have held a cut-out of Carroll when he said it. It seemed like mindless bravado at the time but then October 6, 2007 happened. The Biggest Upset Ever. Pritchard to Sherman. Pritchard to Bradford. Booty to (whoops) McNally. 24-23.
Harbaugh marched his 1-3 squad and his backup quarterback into the Coliseum and won. Carroll exacted some revenge in 2008, but Stanford’s 2009 victory was so dominant, so cruel—Harbaugh went for two with an insurmountable lead in the fourth quarter just, as some/many/all /everyone but Jim would claim, to hang 50 on USC—that Carroll confronted Harbaugh at midfield and asked, "What’s your deal?" Harbaugh’s response? "What’s YOUR deal?"
The roles had been reversed, and if there was any doubt that Stanford was enjoying its newfound supremacy over Troy, it was extinguished when the Cardinal used "What’s your deal" as a marketing tool to sell ticket packages. It was the Cardinal’s equivalent of using Vader’s anthem for lineup introductions, and while it may not have mattered to the rest of the conference—surely, it did not—it set Stanford up as USC’s main antagonist.
Still, there was a void for the rest of the conference. There was no team that, as a whole, the other 11 conspired to (love to) hate. That’s not to say USC’s decline was met with anything less than unbridled joy from the rest of the Pac-12. The Trojans, getting their nose rubbed all up in it? Awesome. Bask in their comeuppance.
But Troy never fell all the way to the mat. Kiffin was able to keep the ship from capsizing, sold the comeback story to recruits, and even in 2011, when the Trojans were ineligible for a bowl game, had them playing some of the best football in the country by the end of the year. They were still tough, but outside of playing spoiler, they were largely just…there. In a no man’s land where they were good enough to compete, but forbidden to do so. There’s emptiness in that. Stanford’s two wins over a sanctioned USC were still every bit as thrilling as any other they had in 2010 or 2011, but they weren’t being measured against the "true" USC. Their fans may have been defiant, but the Trojans themselves handled their punishment quietly.
Normal, it was not, and it wouldn’t last: from the second the bowl ban ended, the Trojans became the Pac-12’s title contender. They started the year No. 1 in the AP poll. Oregon was close behind them, but you wouldn’t know it. Matt Barkley is the Heisman favorite and a strong contender for the No. 1 pick in next April’s draft. Kiffin, before coming to his senses, banned a reporter from a game for reporting on injury news. A USC banner surfaced this off-season in Westwood.
Vader’s anthem was playing again.
But that swagger can’t return. Not entirely, anyway, until USC beats Stanford. Because ultimately, the Big Bad isn’t just a villain—it’s also the measuring stick by which we judge our hero. For USC to return to the top, it needs to defeat the team that, more than any other, has embarrassed them the most over the past five years. For Stanford to remain a contender, it must fend off what has quickly become the USC of old.
USC needs Stanford. Stanford needs USC. And this weekend, one Big Bad must fall.