2013 serves as a litmus test on conference hierarchy

As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close in 2009, things were looking positively rosy for USC’s football program.

The Trojans had just finished one of the most dominating runs in college football history under coach Pete Carroll, who compiled a 97-19 record (83.6 winning percentage) at USC that featured two national championships and three Heisman winners.

Excluding 2009, the last seven years of his reign were especially impressive — seven consecutive conference titles, 11-win seasons, top-4 finishes in the AP Poll and BCS bowl appearances.

As a result, USC was named college football’s “Team of the Decade” by CBS Sports and “Program of the Decade” by Sports Illustrated.

The team had gone just 8-4 in the 2009 regular season, but freshman phenom quarterback Matt Barkley closed out the year by leading the Trojans to a 24-13 victory over Boston College in the Emerald Bowl.

Even though Oregon and Stanford defeated USC by a total of 61 points while beginning their ascension as mainstays atop the Pac-12, the future looked bright. Barkley looked poised to be the next great USC quarterback to lead the team to a BCS bowl alongside Carroll.

But a new decade brought new problems that tarnished both the future and the past.

On Jan. 12, 2010, news broke that Carroll had accepted a job with the Seattle Seahawks. Just two days later, Lane Kiffin was announced as his replacement, leading to concerns that the search committee rushed its decision.

That summer, the real bombshell dropped — two years without postseason play, four years of probation, the loss of 30 scholarships over three years, and 14 victories from USC’s glory days with Reggie Bush wiped from the record books.

In the three seasons that followed, the Trojans won 25 of 38 games for a .658 winning percentage; far worse than Oregon (.900) and Stanford (.875) and closer to the likes of Washington (.538) and Arizona State (.526).

And last year, UCLA stated its case to take over the title of best team in Los Angeles both in results on the field — a 38-28 victory at the Rose Bowl — and in recruiting — UCLA’s 2013 class was ranked No. 3 by Scout.com while USC lingered below at No. 18.

“Being able to get that win against [USC] last year was great, and it was huge for our program,” said UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo. “I think USC is a good team every year. But I’ve noticed a difference in my own team. We’re able to compete with [USC].”

Part of that gap in the recruiting ranks stems from the limitations caused by USC’s scholarship reductions, as the Trojans only signed 12 players compared to the Bruins’ 28. But that doesn’t explain the bevy of last-minute decommitments that downgraded USC’s class from spectacular to something a few notches below.

The Trojans were still able to ink eight recruits ranked in the top-100, but if USC puts up another disappointing season this year, one can expect that figure to decrease next year.

“I’m sure that where our program was viewed 12 months ago and where it is right now has an impact,” Kiffin said. “I do think that last year’s season impacted the end of last year’s class. Not playing well, job security questions … No matter how well your staff does, there’s going to be some impact when that happens.”

USC’s late-season slump undoubtedly affected the perception of the program; in the Pac-12 preseason poll, the Trojans were picked to finish third in the South Division behind UCLA and Arizona State.

But USC players said they aren’t letting what others think affect them, and they point out that the media hasn’t been able to predict how the Trojans will perform for a couple of years now.

“We’re underdogs, a little more under the radar this year,” said redshirt senior tackle Kevin Graf. “But that’s how we were two years ago when we went 10-2. People weren’t expecting much of us; they thought the sanctions would really tear us apart. But it made us grow a lot more together, and I think we’re gonna do the same this year.”

They’re also ready to dispel the notion that the program is on the downswing.

“USC is USC, and it’s gonna be that way for a long time,” said redshirt senior defensive end Devon Kennard. “But we have competition now. We just have to get back to the way we play football.”

Perhaps the 2010 and 2012 seasons were just bumps in the road; after all, the first two years of the 2000s yielded just 11 wins and 13 losses before Carson Palmer broke out and led the Trojans to a 11-2 campaign in Carroll’s second year on the job.

Maybe we’re about to witness a similar jump by a new USC quarterback and the reconstructed defense.

But with Kiffin seemingly one bump away from being moved from the program’s driver’s seat to the hot seat, USC fans might want to buckle up. The Bruins, Ducks and Cardinal are coming up fast in the rearview mirror.


Follow Will Laws on Twitter @WillLaws