Throughout the 2000s, the USC Trojans were the tide that lifted all boats in the former Pac-10 Conference.
Now with 12 members, the conference was never deeper or more top-heavy than it is now. And the gold standard which every program pursued has been faced with rebuilding at a most inopportune time.
While the Pac-12 bridged the gap, USC faced the loss of its architect head coach, Pete Carroll, and the onset of debilitating NCAA sanctions. This was the worst time the Trojans could have faced such uncertainty in their program.
The statistic perhaps most associated with Lane Kiffin's ouster as head coach is 7-of-11—USC's record in its last 11 games, dating back to October 2012.
However, the more telling figure is the 1-5 record USC sports in Pac-12 Conference games starting from that same point. The two most recent defeats—Washington State and Arizona State—came against opposition the Trojans dominated in recent history.
Before 2011, Arizona State hadn't beaten USC since 1999. Now, the Sun Devils have taken two-of-three. Washington State's last win in the series coincidentally came at the beginning of the Trojan empire, 2002.
Those two losses were the most indicative of the conference's tide turning. Both Arizona State and Washington State improved in the last decade. Today, the leader that forced them to step up their play was Oregon.
Chip Kelly's transformation of the Oregon program from a solid but not championship-contending one into the annual Top Five team took up USC's mantle within the league.
In the same manner every program was chasing the Trojans in the 2000s, the Ducks set the tone into the current decade. The response across the Pac-12 is resounding, as Stanford's build-up during USC's reign has reached a pinnacle now.
Other athletic departments around the conference responded with new coaching staffs and upgraded facilities.
This is the key difference between the current era and the last time USC experienced a regression. The Trojans of the late 1990s into the early 2000s hit a bottom much lower than its present mark, but the storm was much more easily weathered because no conference counterpart seized the opportunity.
UCLA and Arizona both showed signs, but were essentially flashes-in-the-pan. Both Washington and Washington State declined as USC was rebuilding. Oregon was only in the early phases of constructing the benchmark it's set.
Had the conference similarly stalled after 2009, USC's current situation would be much less dire.
Extending its run of conference championships, which spanned from 2002 through 2008, was not going to happen. The streak snapped in Carroll's last season and before the NCAA levied its sanctions against USC.
The Trojans replaced one of the greatest defenses in college football history between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and the arguably too-early departure of quarterback Mark Sanchez to the NFL draft left the offense to a true freshman.
Yet, as the youngsters tabbed to take up the mantle in 2009 matured into the subsequent seasons, USC would have been just fine under different circumstances.
The 2011 season serves as proof. That 10-2 run, which included wins at both Notre Dame and Autzen Stadiums, was the last vestige of the empire. That roster, built prior to the sanctions, could have been the transitional group between championship eras had USC had more with which to build.
As it stands, the Trojans go into rebuilding mode. With Pat Haden at the helm and any number of outstanding candidates on the coaching market, USC is just fine and will return in short order.
The process is just more difficult now than it was over a decade ago.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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