USC brushes off sanctions to be No. 1 in AP Top 25

By Ralph D. Russo

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Aug. 18 2012 8:05 a.m. MDT

Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin gestures during NCAA college football practice in Los Angeles, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012.

Grant Hindsley, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NEW YORK — Southern California is No. 1 in the AP Top 25, tossing off the weight of NCAA sanctions and returning to a familiar place in the rankings — with a boost from LSU's problems.

USC earned the top spot in The Associated Press' preseason college football poll for the seventh time in school history and the first time in five seasons, edging out No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 LSU.

The Trojans received 25 of a possible 60 first-place votes from a media panel in a close vote. USC received 1,445 points. Defending national champion Alabama had 17 first-place votes and 1,411 points while LSU, the Crimson Tide's SEC rival, got 16 first-place votes and 1,402 points.

Oklahoma was fourth with a single first-place vote and Oregon was fifth. Michigan, at No. 8, received the only other first-place vote.

The Tigers were poised to start the season No. 1 before Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu got kicked off the team a week ago.

In light of that development, the AP extended the voting deadline. Before Mathieu was dismissed, reportedly for failed drug tests, LSU had received 28 of a possible 60 first-place votes. USC was a close second with 22 first-place votes and Alabama was third with nine.

The USA Today coaches' poll, which was released Aug. 2, had LSU at No. 1, followed by Alabama and USC.

Rounding out the top 10 in the AP rankings, Georgia was No. 6, followed by Florida State and Michigan. No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Arkansas give the Southeastern Conference half of the first 10 teams.

For the Trojans, their return to national championship contention comes just two years after the program was hit by NCAA sanctions that seemed crippling at the time.

"To be handed down what they said could be a death penalty, could take USC 10 years to come back from, then to have this recognition and be preseason No. 1 is very exciting for our fans because a lot people thought two years ago that this would not be possible for USC," coach Lane Kiffin told the AP.

Kiffin was an assistant coach for USC during its last great run. From 2001-09 under coach Pete Carroll, the Trojans won two national titles and played for a third, made seven straight BCS appearances and had three Heisman Trophy winners in Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. At one point, USC spent a record 33 straight weeks at No. 1.

But Carroll left for the NFL after the 2009 season and Kiffin was hired to replace him. A few months later the NCAA hit USC with a two-year bowl ban, plus scholarship limitations and probation because Bush and his family received impermissible benefits.

USC went 8-5 in 2010, then charged back to 10-2 last season. And when star quarterback Matt Barkley decided to stick around for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft, the Trojans were set to make a run at No. 1.

And USC is once again trendy in Los Angeles.

"Do you feel that? Sure you do," Kiffin said. "Games already sold out. Just the energy around it. All those different things. That's how it was before. I've talked to these players about it."

With Barkley, the preseason Heisman favorite, along with receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, plus running backs Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd, these Trojans have drawn comparisons to those great Leinart/Bush offenses.

"They are going to be successful because of the work they put in and not because of the hype," Kiffin said.

If USC has questions, it's on the defensive side, where the line is thin and the pass defense was spotty last season. Those potent Pac-12 offenses will provide plenty of tests, none stiffer than on Nov. 3 when Oregon comes to the Coliseum for the first of a possible two contests with the Trojans.

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