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January 24, 2012
"Eighteen months ago, you couldn't find a positive article about the future of USC's program,'' said Kiffin, who took over USC's program at that time. "Eighteen months ago, when [the sanctions] happened, everybody talked about it being the death penalty. USC was over.''
Nobody's saying that anymore.
USC, banned from bowl games the past two seasons, has overcome NCAA sanctions to regain its status as one of the nation's most feared college football programs.
USC closed the 2011 season ranked sixth nationally by The Associated Press, and the return of star quarterback Matt Barkley should catapult the Trojans into the top five of the 2012 preseason rankings.
This winter was supposed to be the first year recruiting sanctions hurt the school; it is limited to just 15 scholarships - or 10 fewer than the NCAA's limit - the next three recruiting cycles.
But one week before National Signing Day, USC has one of the strongest classes in the country and remains very much in the mix with many of the nation's top uncommitted recruits.
It has commitments from four Rivals100 prospects - including five-star offensive lineman Jordan Simmons. It is in contention for about a dozen others, including five-star offensive lineman Zach Banner.
[ More on the Trojans: USCFootball.com ]
"It's business as usual at USC except they are having this success despite having to be much more careful with their offers and who they can take commitments from," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "A great season on the field certainly helped, but Lane Kiffin and his staff are keeping the brand name of USC strong."
Whether USC truly is going to not just survive but thrive during this loss of scholarships period will depend on the talent evaluation skills of Kiffin's staff - and some fun with numbers.
USC already has eight verbal commitments for 2012, not counting the four early enrollees who are considered part of the 2011 class. Kiffin has said he wants to sign a full class of 15 recruits.
Here's where the math gets tricky.
As it stands now, a full 15-man recruiting class would give USC roughly 80 scholarship players. USC, as part of its probation, cannot have more than 75 scholarship players.
How will they get to that number? Kiffin isn't saying.
"We've had a stance here on numbers going back to a year-and-a-half ago when this happened, that we don't discuss really how we're managing the situation here with numbers and stuff for competitive reasons," Kiffin said.
Those numbers could naturally go down if a few more players decide to leave. USC's scholarship numbers already have decreased since the start of the 2011 season with the transfers of running back Dillon Baxter, defensive back T.J. Bryant, wide receiver Brice Butler, running back Amir Carlisle, defensive back Patrick Hall and wide receiver Kyle Prater.
Perhaps more players will depart before the start of preseason camp. Off-field issues potentially could result in more defections. It's also worth noting that any school's scholarship offer to a potential student-athlete merely represents a one-year agreement and not a four-year guarantee.
The uncertainty has caused recruits to hear plenty of different stories about USC's pending numbers crunch. How much negative recruiting has gone on is subject for debate.
Jabari Ruffin, a four-star linebacker from Downey (Calif.) High who committed to USC last March, said other schools didn't discuss USC's sanctions with him.
"That was never brought up, especially with the season [USC] just had," said Ruffin, the No. 40 prospect in the nation. "I was surprised, though. In a job like that, when you're recruiting somebody to a school, you might say anything. But nobody went there.''
Although Ruffin apparently didn't hear anyone badmouth USC in those terms, Kiffin indicated other recruits received plenty of false or misleading statements.
"A lot of stuff gets thrown out there to these kids from other places that's inaccurate on what exactly is happening over the next few years, how many guys we can sign and what our numbers really are,'' Kiffin said. "We actually have to do a lot of correcting inaccurate information. We get all kinds of things. That if you get injured, with the reduced numbers, they're going to cut you. That they're only going to be able to sign six guys [in a given year]. We deal with a whole bunch of stuff.''
Those concerns haven't stopped USC from landing plenty of quality talent.
Ten of USC's 12 commitments for 2012 (including early enrollees) are four- or five-star prospects. Even in the midst of probation, the USC name means plenty to blue-chip prospects.
"It's freaking USC," Pleasant Hill (Calif.) Diablo Valley College defensive end Morgan Breslin told USCfootball.com last month after switching his commitment from UCLA. "I was just in shock that they were recruiting me. ... To be honest, I don't even know how to explain how excited I was to have a chance to go there.''
USC's class currently is made up entirely of California players, a notable change from the more national recruiting approach used by former coach Pete Carroll. Kiffin has made a point of pursuing in-state prospects, but he also hopes the Trojans' recent success on the field will make a difference with top out-of-state recruits.
"The great stats that Matt had and the two receivers [Robert Woods and Marqise Lee] had, it was like the old days," Kiffin said. "Obviously that helps when you talk about national recruiting. That's been the hardest thing the last few years - the national recruiting. Because of the bowl ban and dealing with the sanctions, it makes it a lot harder for a kid to leave home, when he has great options right there, to come out here. I know that this season has helped for the future of our national recruiting.''
But the scholarship reductions prevent USC from signing every notable recruit who wants to play for the Trojans. Kiffin's staff must decide which of them represent the best fits for his program.
"I think their goal for the next three years is to get 15 - and to get 15 quality kids," Farrell said. "That's why you're seeing a lot less offers out there. They used to blanket the country with offers. Now they're not doing that. They're being very picky. Getting to 15 is easy. It's about getting to 15 with the right guys.''
It's the same challenge that other probation-ridden programs also faced while dealing with scholarship losses.
"You have no room for error," said Florida International athletic director Pete Garcia, who served as the recruiting coordinator on former Miami coach Butch Davis' staff when the Hurricanes were on probation in the 1990s. "Evaluation is the key. It's more about evaluating than recruiting. When you have limits on scholarships, you have to make every one count.''
Even if a program makes all the right choices, it inevitably will encounter depth problems. For example, Carlisle's transfer has left USC with only three scholarship tailbacks.
Then again, USC may be uniquely equipped to deal with scholarship reductions.
When the NCAA handed down its sanctions in the summer of 2010, it essentially turned USC's juniors and seniors into free agents by allowing them to leave for another Division I program without sitting out a year. USC opened preseason camp in 2010 with only 70 scholarship players, so Kiffin won't be facing a situation he had never encountered before.
"It's just made us manage our team a little more like an NFL team, with the lower numbers on game day, the lower numbers in practice and the lower numbers in the spring," said Kiffin, who coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and 2008. "We had to be a little more specific. Instead of maybe signing big classes - or getting good players regardless of position - we had to be more specific about where those guys would exactly fit in as we moved forward. It's more like the NFL.''
Of course, classes don't get much bigger than the 30-man group (including eight early enrollees) that USC signed last year. USC wouldn't be facing such a numbers crunch if it had brought in a smaller class last year, but Kiffin has no regrets. He said the large 2011 class was necessary so that USC would have enough talent in place to deal with the pending scholarship cuts.
"It would have been crippling to our program not to do what we did," Kiffin said.
A look at USC's depth chart backs up Kiffin's point. That 2011 class included four players who were starting by the end of the season: Lee, offensive guard Marcus Martin, linebacker Lamar Dawson and kicker Andre Heidari.
"To finish sixth in the country, have 10 regular-season wins and to [potentially] be a preseason top-five team, it makes us feel very good about what has happened and where our program is now compared to where everybody said it would be," Kiffin said.
USC undoubtedly has withstood the effects of probation thus far better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
But their biggest challenge is still to come. As the scholarship losses take effect, USC's ability to remain a national power in the post-Barkley era will depend on whether the quality of these next few recruiting classes makes up for their lack of quantity.
(Olin Buchanan of Rivals.com contributed to this report).