When NCAA-mandated probationary periods end for college football programs, their struggles are often just beginning.
The full burden of bowl bans and scholarship reductions is not often felt until after sanctions end. USC enters the 2014 season two years removed from the end of a two-year postseason ban and just weeks removed from a three-year scholarship reduction that could have crippled the program.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian inherits a situation much more favorable than past head coaches have faced with programs just emerging from the woods.
"When we come out of this thing, it's truly going to show the power of USC," Sarkisian told Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. "Not many schools could have withstood that in the manner and fashion as USC. This is a very powerful place."
Indeed, USC is better positioned to return to prominence without hiccups than previous programs that endured heavy sanctions—including two of the most prominent on the current college football landscape.
The sanctions levied against USC were the most severe given to any major program since Auburn in the mid-1990s. The Tigers were hit with a bowl ban, scholarship reductions and a television ban that prevented the public from seeing any of the 11 wins in their undefeated 1993 campaign.
Auburn finished 9-1-1 the next year while still barred from the postseason. By 1995, Terry Bowden had the Tigers back in the postseason in the first of two straight 8-4 runs.
But the real brunt of the NCAA penalties was felt when the reduced scholarship classes were the program's upperclassmen. In 1998, Auburn stumbled to 3-8, and Bowden was fired midseason—a move that should sound familiar to USC faithful.
The Tigers finished 5-7 the next season while still adjusting with an imbalanced roster.
Beating the long-term challenges of sanctions starts—of course—on the recruiting trail. When scholarship restrictions are lifted, a program's roster has a disproportionate ratio of underclassmen to upperclassmen.
The challenge is ensuring the greatly outnumbered juniors and seniors are talented to compensate for the lack of depth and enough newcomers are prepared to play immediate roles.
USC remained successful on the recruiting trail despite its limitations.
This year's juniors were the first signees in USC's scholarship-reduction era. It's a group that includes preseason All-Americans Nelson Agholor and Leonard Williams, cornerstones of the Trojans offense and defense, respectively.
For his faults as head coach, Lane Kiffin continued to recruit well despite the limitations. USC is stocked with enough talent from its reduced classes to remain competitive while in transition.
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Sarkisian kept the ball rolling with the nation's No. 11-ranked class in 2014. His success in bringing together USC's final class with reduced scholarships is a positive indicator of the program's directions as it embarks on this new era.
Sarkisian capitalized on his familiarity with the local prep scene, the lifeblood of USC's recruiting. From his time as a Trojans assistant and in his tenure as head coach at Washington, Sarkisian built relationships in the Los Angeles-area high school football landscape that will power the Trojans for years to come.
Marvin Sanders is head coach of Loyola High School in Los Angeles. Loyola produced UCLA star Anthony Barr as well as 2014 USC offensive line commit Chris Brown. Sanders explained to me how the school's relationship with USC was mutually beneficial, and Sarkisian has established other such connections in other Southland high schools.
Among them is Long Beach Poly, home of 5-star 2014 recruit John "JuJu" Smith:
Sarkisian is looking like the right hire to bring stability to the program as it enters potentially choppy waters. Having such a leader navigate the post-sanction terrain is vital, lest the program suffer a setback similar to that which plagued Alabama in the first half of the 2000s.
Alabama initially hired Mike Price to replace Dennis Franchione, immediately removed from a two-year postseason ban and reduction of scholarships. The Crimson Tide were just seven years out of a different period of sanctions, further complicating their rebuilding.
Price was dismissed in the spring after allegations of improprieties and just months after signing a recruiting class Rivals.com ranked No. 49. Such a scenario is unfathomable for Alabama a decade later.
Price's dismissal left Alabama scrambling, and Mike Shula was tabbed for the job. His four-year stint ended with a whimper at 6-7. The ensuing rebuilding project began in 2007 under Nick Saban, and even he mustered only a 7-6 campaign in his first year.
Expectations on Sarkisian in his debut season at USC are higher—and understandably so. The Trojans may have faced particularly harsh sanctions, but they come out of them far more equipped for immediate success than past penalized teams.
Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores unless otherwise noted.