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What's expected of a football team the first few years after an NCAA scandal is, as USC center Kris O'Dowd puts it, "turn on your backs and stay there while you get kicked." Oregon's 53--32 victory over the Trojans last Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum qualifies as a solid kick, but one lesson of the game is that USC may not endure as many kicks, or for as long, as once presumed.
Burdened by NCAA sanctions, including a two-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years, the Trojans aren't what they used to be. But they hung in with the No. 1 Ducks until the fourth quarter, and with sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley and other top talents (freshmen Robert Woods and Dillon Baxter, among others) returning and several top recruits on the way, USC looks as if it will remain relevant even while it waits until 2012 to compete for a BCS title. "They are still pretty good, and they are only going to get better," says Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews, whose father, Clay Jr., and brother, Clay III, starred for the Trojans. "The sanctions and adapting to a new coach have hurt them, but they're still USC."
The assumption that the Trojans would struggle for years grew, in part, from a sense that first-year coach Lane Kiffin was not long for the job. But USC athletic director Pat Haden said last week that Kiffin has brought needed discipline and structure to the program, and he gave the coach a clear vote of confidence. "More and more, I like Lane as a coach and as a person," Haden said. "More and more, I think he is the right fit for USC."
It helps that Kiffin has already secured four commitments from Rivals.com's top 100 recruits for 2011. That number matches those of Alabama, Florida and LSU. West Coast schools most expected to benefit from USC's tarnished image—such as Washington (two commits), Oregon (one) and UCLA (zero)—haven't yet. "We had to let kids out of their letters of intent, one of whom [right tackle Seantrel Henderson] is starting at Miami right now," Kiffin says. "We lost some players who transferred, and that hurt our depth. But I like where we are headed."
In other words, opposing teams had better get their kicks in while they can. The Trojans aren't going to be on their backs for long.
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Stewart Mandel answers readers' questions every week in his Mailbag at SI.com/cfb