USC football made it through the sanctions era as a Top 20 program

USC football head coach Clay Helton. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
USC football head coach Clay Helton. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

USC football made it through sanctions as a Top 20 program. Now it’s time to rise.

The 10-year anniversary of USC football’s devastating sanctions just passed. So that’s the lens through which a recent ranking of the Top 25 programs in college football can be viewed by Trojan fans.

Sporting News dropped their ranking of the “top 25 programs of the past 10 years” on Tuesday. They used a formula factoring in national titles, title game appearances, playoff appearances, BCS bowl appearances, Heisman Trophy winners, winning percentage, All-Americans and first-round draft picks.

USC checked in at No. 19.

What does USC football’s 10-year ranking mean?

There are a few ways to react to the ranking.

First, it’s clear USC has performed well below expectations over the past 10 years. The Trojans shouldn’t be the fourth-best program in the Pac-12, behind No. 7 Oregon, No. 11 Stanford and No. 18 Washington. They shouldn’t trail the likes of No. 15 Boise State.

In ten years, if USC is still outside the Top 10, then the decision-makers in Troy messed up. Big time.

CHECK OUT: Ranking USC’s most iconic jersey numbers

There’s another perspective to take though. Yes, USC disappointed, but they also managed to navigate the sanctions era without falling out of the Top 20. That’s something, right?

It doesn’t make the last 10 years any more enjoyable. It doesn’t make up for the frustrations of constant coaching changes and the most recent string of blowout losses. It definitely doesn’t excuse all the ways Pat Haden and Lynn Swann mismanaged their coaching hirings and firings. It doesn’t let the coaching staff of Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian or Clay Helton off the hook. But it does go to show that even the worst Trojan decade still outpaces most programs.

After all, the NCAA set out to destroy USC when they levied a punishment of 30 scholarships lost over three years. The two-year bowl ban and vacated victories were mosquito bites by comparison to the roster devastation.

Despite it all, USC managed Top 15 recruiting classes in eight of the 10 years since. Four of those classes ranked in the Top 5.

MORE: USC’s best defensive linemen since 2000

On-the-field results certainly haven’t risen to the level of those recruiting hauls, at least not consistently. Even so, the Trojans went 86-45 during the decade, winning 65.6 percent of their games. They managed two Top 10 finishes, a Rose Bowl victory and a Pac-12 title.

Is that enough to keep Trojan fans happy? Not at all. Most of the decade has felt like walking through the valley of dashed hopes punctuated by trips to the circus. Fans are right to demand more.

A dip to No. 20 puts into perspective how high USC’s sights should be set. Competent management, competent coaching and competent recruiting is all it should take to climb quickly.