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Senior College Football Columnist

Back atop AP rankings, USC may have thrived from being scrubbed clean

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Kiffin has helped lead USC back atop the rankings after two years of probation. (Getty Images)  
Kiffin has helped lead USC back atop the rankings after two years of probation. (Getty Images)  

Probation has been a good look for USC.

You have to admit that now. The Trojans' anointment as the AP's preseason No. 1 clinched it. Short of winning a national championship the last two years, we wouldn't have written or talked about them this much if they weren't on probation.

There would be no cries of injustice in June 2010. There would be no hill to climb, no comeback to make, no "plan" developed by Lane Kiffin to keep the Trojans competitive. No overachievement to celebrate.

Matt Barkley would have had an easier time heading to the NFL. Even USC's quarterback himself has to admit that now. What is it he was calling the 2012 season? Unfinished business.

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A dynasty most likely would have continued without the NCAA penalties, but where's the breaking news in that? Instead, USC breaking bad has become a modern miracle in coaching, roster juggling, recruiting and talent acquisition. In a backdoor, twisted kind of way, USC has almost benefitted from having gone on probation for Reggie Bush's misdeeds.

You have to admit that now.

The program has been scrubbed clean. The grim Mike Garrett removed as AD. A boy-king coach has risen. It took a descent into NCAA hell for all of it to happen. USC always gets media attention. But it hardly ever gets this type of attention, with the word "resurrection" high in the story. Let's refine that point: USC at No. 1 when not on probation? Been there, voted that. But USC back to No. 1 after being docked those 30 scholarships and missing two bowl games? Un–Kiffin-believable.

This will not be good news to NCAA president Mark Emmert, whose hammer recently leveled Penn State. But USC's transgressions did not happen on his watch. He was named to his post 1½ months before, and officially took office five months after, the sanctions were handed down on June 10, 2010. By that time, the NCAA's investigation had stretched to four years and concluded Bush had been a one-man wrecking crew.

Off the field, that is.

The case became one of the most divisive in history. Then-infractions committee chairman Paul Dee chastised USC for not being more vigilant of the conduct of its top player. At the same time, as we now know, the program under the then-Miami AD's watch was enabling Nevin Shapiro.

Then: Critics ripped USC for becoming Laissez-Faire U. under Pete Carroll. Now: The buckled-down Trojans are sympathetic figures. There is now a body of evidence that suggests Troy was railroaded. An appeal was rejected. Running backs coach Todd McNair is suing the NCAA after being slapped with a one-year show-cause that essentially blackballed him.

Lane Kiffin showed up, swallowed hard and called the penalties our own little version of the death penalty. The coach who'd been branded crazy at Tennessee revealed sides we'd never seen -- humility, maturity. He found a willing wingman in AD Pat Haden. That "plan"? Forget the air quotes. It was hundreds of pages thick, detailed in a binder on how to get past the penalties.

This is how quickly things turn for USC these days: Last week Coach K was vilified for misappropriating his coaches' poll vote. On Saturday, he was vindicated by the Associated Press media voters without any input at all.

Really, who would have believed 26 months ago that USC would be this high in any poll this early with this much optimism?

"Yeah," Kiffin told CBSSports.com's Bruce Feldman last month, "I would have believed that."

That's so Kiffin, so SoCal, so encouraging if 26 months ago you were among the embittered. Kiffin's program reached a pinnacle Saturday that wouldn't have been possible without probation. USC No. 1 in any given season? Makes sense. USC No. 1 right now? Shut the front door.

Sure, Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal probably played a role in LSU starting out at No. 3 in AP. (The Tigers were No. 1 in the coaches' poll released more than two weeks ago.) But the probation was that bad. And now it's not. Poof.

In the middle of it, Barkley and teammate T.J. McDonald decided to stay. In the last month, a Penn State 1,200-yard rusher dropped in the Trojans' laps. There are still depth issues, but there have been depth issues in the last two seasons when USC won a combined 18 games. Not bad, especially when you consider the Trojans "won" the Pac-12 South last year while on probation. Kiffin took 53 scholarship players to Oregon in November and won. USC president Max Nikias wept in the locker room.

There's a book to be written here at some point. But there would be no book to write unless the Trojans had overcome. Just don't tell Emmert. USC resiliency flies in the face of risk outweighing reward when it comes to NCAA wrongdoing. And, yes, monster challenges lay ahead. The Trojans are still only a third of the way through those scholarship losses.

We know that USC is always going to get attention. It's a top-five program. Carroll picked up a diminished program, brushed it off and led it to six BCS bowls in nine years. At one time it really seemed like the Trojans could Win Forever. Carroll came around at the exact right time in the school's and city's history. The NFL was gone. The Dodgers were uneven. Carroll's Trojans operated like a pro franchise -- for good and bad.

It's hard to fathom how USC remained a national program while becoming a national story these last two years. But there it was, the label screaming from the top of the AP poll on Saturday.

"We definitely didn't come here to be underdogs," safety T.J. McDonald said.

Only one label left to chase, then, T.J. You have to admit that now.

The national story has to become a national champion.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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