Carson Palmer wasn’t just the first quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy for USC. He was the first player from the West Coast since Marcus Allen in 1981 to take home the most coveted award in college football.
Based on his first seasons as a starter for USC, you wouldn’t have guessed it. Even at the close of the 2001 season, the year before his career took off, it would have been madness to suggest Palmer would become the best player in the country.
In 1998, he split time at QB and threw nearly as many picks (6) as touchdowns (7). In 1999, he suffered a season-ending collarbone break after three games. In 2000, he actually did throw more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (16) while posting a 5-7 record. Things didn’t get much better in 2001. Sure, there were signs of life in Pete Carroll’s first season as head coach, but Palmer tossed just 13 touchdowns to 12 interceptions while the Trojans went 6-6.
It’s important to note that difficult history to truly appreciate what came next. In 2002, Palmer and USC came alive and a new era of Trojan football arrived.
Playing the nation’s toughest schedule, the quarterback led his team to an 11-2 season and an Orange Bowl victory. Along the way, he put up incredible numbers, with five four-touchdown performances in his last seven games. One of those was a fateful night against Notre Dame when he showered the Irish with 425 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-13 romp which essentially won him the Heisman Trophy.
Chuck Culpepper from Newsday put it like this: “He molted from mediocrity, redefined USC as something other than an annual sigh to its lunatic fans, and bobbed up as the most outstanding player.”
When all was said and done Palmer established himself as the greatest quarterback in Trojan history…until the next one came along.