Reflecting on the Last Five Years as NCAA Sanctions at USC End

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NCAA sanctions at USC end today, though this particular chapter in Trojans football history is not yet completed.

USC endured the stiffest penalties levied against any one football program since the early 1990s, when Auburn was hit with a litany of sanctions that included banishment from TV. With the sanctions now lifted, USC can return its roster a full 85 players and offer 25 scholarships in its recruiting cycles. Returning to full strength both in numbers and in pre-sanctions stature won’t happen overnight.

Likewise, USC’s fall from the very top of college football certainly didn’t occur overnight.

The last five years at USC were a roller coaster, starting with the 2009 season. Reggie Bush, the subject of the NCAA’s investigation, was four years removed from the program. The Trojans had not yet received the word from the NCAA, though dark clouds were certainly on the horizon.

That season exposed the first cracks in the armor. For the first season since Pete Carroll’s first as USC head coach, the Trojans failed to win a share of the then-Pac-10 championship—and in the final weeks of the regular season, were not even really in contention. Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford were all ahead in one of the more shocking developments.

Three weeks after USC beat Boston College in an ultimately forgettable Emerald Bowl, years of rumors Carroll would return to the NFL finally culminated in his accepting the Seattle Seahawks’ head coaching vacancy. Carroll’s been just fine in the pros, this year winning a Super Bowl with a philosophy similar to that of USC teams, employing a power-run game to complement a smash-mouth defense.

Yet despite his NFL success, this week Carroll said he wouldn’t have left USC had he known of the sanctions headed the program’s way. That certainly runs contradictory to the assumption plenty have, particularly given the popular sentiment he left because of impending sanctions.

What if Carroll had stayed? Would USC have fared any better in the last half-decade under his guidance than it did with former Carroll assistant Lane Kiffin at the helm?

USC is not exactly in dire straits now at the end of its sanctions. Sure, former Carroll assistant and new head coach Steve Sarkisian faces some uncertainty in his first season–specifically depth issues as a result of the sanctions–but he inherits a team that finished 2013 with 10 wins and ranked in the Top 20.

Still, USC was the most feared program not only in the West, but arguably all of college football prior to the sanctions. Sarkisian’s expected to recapture that same essence in a much more competitive landscape, one in which crosstown rival UCLA is establishing itself as a player on the national scene.

It’s also interesting to envision how that dominance would have played out in an evolving Pac-12. In 2007, at the tail-end of USC’s Carroll-led dominance, Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti brought relative unknown Chip Kelly on as offensive coordinator. Kelly transformed the Ducks into a hyper-speed version of the spread, specifically to counter USC’s overwhelming style of defense.

Though Oregon’s ascent in the conference began as USC was on the decline, the former was not a result of the latter. Oregon was going to become a contender, with or without USC carrying the conference’s banner.

That was one crucial element of the last five years at USC. While the Trojans faced challenges to their dominance—Cal in 2003 and 2004, Oregon State in 2006, Arizona State in 2007—USC was the Pac’s sole constant. Moreover, USC was just markedly better than the rest of the conference.

As the 2000s gave way to the 2010s, Oregon wasn’t the only program to improve considerably. The Ducks found a natural rival in Stanford, the nation’s most surprising powerhouse.

Stanford’s consistency since 2010 rivals that of not only Oregon, but Alabama, as Cardinal head coach David Shaw noted following the 2013 Pac-12 Championship Game.

“The facts are three teams in the last four years have won ten‑plus games, Stanford, Oregon, and Alabama. Four years straight, 10‑plus games,” he said.

Stanford’s blueprint for success mirrored that of USC under Carroll: a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback was a cornerstone, but stifling defense with NFL-bound talent truly defined the program and buoyed the team after Andrew Luck’s departure.

At last July’s Pac-12 media day, Shaw credited Stanford’s upset over Carroll’s Trojans in 2007 with beginning the Cardinal’s rise. In the years since, Stanford became a harsh reminder of the status USC lost as a result of its NCAA sanctions, rolling off four straight wins from 2009 to 2012.

Last year’s USC win was interim head coach Ed Orgeron’s stamp on Trojan history, and certainly a positive building block for the program as it rebuilds. But a trip to Stanford this September will be a telling measure stick of just how far USC is from retaining its past glory.