This seemingly is going to be a great and horrible weekend for USC.
Talented recruits will visit the campus, possibly adding to an already loaded recruiting class. At the same time, a contingent of USC officials have landed in Indianapolis for Saturday's NCAA appeals hearing. AD Pat Haden is trying to get some relief from the crippling NCAA penalties that he inherited when he took office in August.
That it could be both a great and horrible weekend for Troy is a sign of the strength of the football program. Haden admits that the school's appeal is a long shot. He's hoping to halve the two-year bowl ban and the reduction of 30 scholarships over three years. It's not an all-or-nothing argument. The NCAA could honor none, some or all of USC's request.
"Our primary contention," associate AD J.K. McKay told reporters, "is, given what we were found to have done, these are the harshest penalties ever meted out."
At the same time, Lane Kiffin continues to pull big-time recruits -- possibly more than he can sign. The roster is down to 60 scholarships players. While the appeal is working its way through the system, though, the scholarship penalties are stayed. That means, conceivably, Kiffin could sign 25 players -- the NCAA limit -- get the roster up to 85 maximum and begin taking scholarship hits beginning in 2012.
Delaying a 30-scholarship hit doesn't seem to improve the situation unless, of course, Haden and USC get their way. They, and we, won't know for the next four-to-six weeks. That's the usual time for an appeal to be completed. If USC delays the scholarship hits, it couldn't sign a full class until 2015. If the 2011 bowl ban is upheld, USC could possibly be the poison pill in the first Pac-12 race. It could win the South Division but wouldn't be eligible for the conference's first (Pac-11?) championship game. Nothing says drama like a second-place team playing in a conference title game.
The thing is, it doesn't seem to matter. The quality of the current top-five class suggests that USC is going to weather the penalties relatively quickly either way. That is somewhat amazing for a program climbing out of penalties that were deemed to be death penalty-like. Kiffin has 17 commitments -- two over the limit if the appeal is denied. Nine other players who signed early count towards the 2010 class. Kiffin said after the penalties were handed down that the staff would have to be extremely selective and accurate because of the reduced scholarships. He also said that because it's USC the program might be able to get through the penalties relatively intact.
Hubris? Optimism? How about reality?
It has to be said: Kiffin and USC are killing it so far. Players still want to come to the program for the same reasons that have applied for decades -- it's L.A., it's sunny, it's a winning program and you can get to the NFL from there. It's the reason quarterback Matt Barkley didn't transfer knowing he may never play in another bowl game (assuming he stays only three years). It's the reason talented prospect Dillon Baxter came in last year's class pretty much knowing the program was about to be hammered.
The Trojans won eight games in 2010, the first year of that probation and should have won 10. It lost to Notre Dame for the first time since 2001. It got boat-raced by Oregon, the new power in the Pac-12. Depth was an issue. So was the offensive line and the front seven. But if this is as bad it gets, then USC will have absorbed a punch to the gut and kept on trucking.
Kiffin has a top-five recruiting class because he was able to get two of the top five recruits in the country -- receiver George Farmer and athlete De'Anthony Thomas. There are two other kids from USC go-to talent base Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei. That's the home of Barkley and Matt Leinart as well as two Heisman winners (Leinart, John Huarte).
As bad as things eventually turn out Saturday in Indianapolis, USC football may be turning the corner toward national prominence. Saturday could be horrible. The future, though, looks great.