As much as the weekday trip to California has thrown off the Bay Area travel plans of USC students and alumni, it’s not all bad news for the Trojan football program.
Thursday night’s game will be televised nationally, meaning a lot of eyes will be on USC coach Lane Kiffin’s crew.
It’s not like USC is starving for attention — the cardinal and gold uniforms are some of the most recognizable in college football and the Los Angeles market is the second biggest in the country.
With the Trojans out of the top 25 and the national title race, however, USC highlights are no longer the lead story on SportsCenter. Though that might not seem like a big deal, a school’s national prominence matters to recruits.
Every time USC steps on the field, there’s more than a win or loss on the line.
Recruits are looking for a variety of things when deciding where they will next take their talents, including a coaching staff that shows genuine interest in them, a desirable location, guaranteed playing time and good academics. Chief among them, at least for the top prospects, is choosing a nationally prominent program with a chance to win conference and national titles.
Dozens of the country’s top prep players will flip to ESPN on Thursday night to see if the Trojans are still relevant.
Fourteen of the 25 best high school seniors have yet to decide where they will play football next year, according to Yahoo Sports’ Rivals.com’s rankings.
This game, and this recruiting season, comes at a crucial time for Kiffin and his staff.
USC’s bowl ban will end after this year but the Trojans are far from out of the woods of NCAA sanctions.
Kiffin will only be able to offer 15 scholarships per year to prospective recruits over the next three seasons, while other schools can sign up to 25 players.
The Trojans can only carry 75 scholarship players on the roster between 2012 and 2014; the upper limit for non-sanctioned programs is 85.
Kiffin has been forced to be more judicious in the scholarships he gives out. Recruiting mistakes will loom larger than ever.
With a full roster, the Trojans have been able to effectively deal with the transfers of one-time elite recruits Blake Ayles, Jarvis Jones, Byron Moore and Markeith Ambles, all of whom are no longer with the program.
It won’t be as easy to hit the reset button in the future.
By most accounts, Kiffin and company are doing a good job adjusting to the limitations. Though the Trojans have earned commitments from only 11 players in the class of 2012 (compared to 23 for Michigan, 20 for LSU and 19 for Alabama), the emphasis has been on quality over quantity.
Rivals rates USC’s class as the best in the nation on a talent per recruit basis. Scout.com shows only five programs nationally with more commitments than USC from the top 100 high school seniors.
The Trojans will need that type of talent influx if they are to ride out the remainder of the sanctions and return to competing for national championships.
USC’s last nine recruiting classes have been ranked in the top 10 nationally by Rivals and Scout, two of the leading recruiting websites.
The rankings are far from scientific and have been called inaccurate by some of the nation’s top college coaches.
Still, they provide fans with a good idea of which teams are doing a good job bringing in top young talent.
For example, in the five years preceding Alabama’s 2009 national championship, the Crimson Tide’s recruiting classes were respectively ranked No. 5, No. 1, No. 1, No. 10 and No. 11 by Rivals.
Florida’s 2008 title squad — the Gators also notched a BCS title in 2006 in Urban Meyer’s second season with the program — was similarly made up of five classes ranked 11th, third, first, second and 15th in the country.
USC had the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class by either Scout or Rivals each year from 2003 to 2006.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the Trojans went 48-4 during that span and won two Associated Press national titles.
High school seniors across the country watched as the Trojans outscored their opponents by an average of more than 22 points per game over the course of those four seasons.
Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll became national celebrities, while USC became the leading destination for the best prep players in the country. In college football, winning begets more winning.
NCAA-levied sanctions, a coaching change, a litany of transfers and some bad luck have dropped the Trojans from those lofty heights in the years since.
Still, Kiffin and his staff are some of the best recruiters in college football.
After all, current defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron served in a similar capacity under Carroll dating from 2001-2003.
During the latter two seasons, the Trojans won an Orange Bowl title and an AP national title following a resounding 28-14 win over Michigan in the 2004 Rose Bowl.
Every once in a while, however, you have to win a big game on national television to keep the kids interested.
“Sellin’ the Sizzle” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.