It's not supposed to work this way.
USC is supposed to be in NCAA jail. The Trojans are in the midst of playing under NCAA sanctions stunning in their severity, sanctions designed to cripple the program's ability to succeed.
Yet there the Trojans stand in their once-customary position of No. 1 in the ESPN Power Rankings. Quarterback Matt Barkley, who eschewed the first round of the NFL draft to return for his senior season, is a Heisman favorite. So much for NCAA president Mark Emmert's attempt to be tough on rule breakers.
USC might even serve as inspiration for Penn State, which just got thrown under the NCAA jail, once everyone in State College stops fuming over how the Trojans swooped in and signed the Nittany Lions' most coveted player, tailback Silas Redd.
Yes, the NCAA did nothing as one team on probation signed a player from the roster of another team on probation. It's just another way that the Trojans have creatively closed the gap created by the Reggie Bush case.
"Our goal was just to maximize the situation we were put in," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We didn't know exactly what that's going to mean."
Kiffin might be a devotee of the pro-set offense -- USC still uses a fullback, for heaven's sake -- but the university's strategy to deal with the NCAA sanctions is straight out of a spread playbook. USC stretched its opponent -- the penalties -- wide enough to find the open places. And then the school attacked.
In 2010, the NCAA smacked USC with a loss of 10 scholarships per year for three years and an overall limit of 75, 10 below the FBS maximum. Kiffin laid out for university president Max Nikias and athletic director Pat Haden the difference between serving the penalties immediately and appealing them.
He created a chart showing the impact of the scholarship cuts if taken immediately. Years of undersigning by Kiffin's mentor and predecessor, Pete Carroll, combined with the departure of several players who transferred after the Trojans suffered a bowl ban, left USC with 67 scholarship players as it entered the 2010 season. If Kiffin could bring in only 15 players per year beginning in 2011, it would be difficult to climb back to full strength.
The administration might have decided to file an appeal for the same reason that anyone files an appeal -- to look for relief. But USC also filed an appeal to game the system. By delaying the scholarship penalties until the appeal had been heard -- and denied -- the Trojans could sign a full class of recruits in February 2011. In fact, because several players enrolled in January, the Trojans signed 31 players, well over the limit of 25. (Early enrollees may be assigned to the previous year's allotment.)
"I have to give a lot of credit to the university and to the president, Max Nikias," Kiffin said. "There were a lot of people saying to go the other way and just take it and get it over with. He had belief in our plan. And it was very glaring, very glaring what it would have done to our program not to sign that big class."
By effectively delaying the scholarship limits, USC set up the 2012 season as the eye of its storm. The Trojans have more experience and more players this season as they return to championship eligibility. Those assets are likely to diminish over the next two seasons as the scholarship reductions exact a greater toll.
Kiffin used the full complement of scholarships with the coming shortfalls in mind.
"We signed a kicker, a punter and a snapper so that we wouldn't have to for the next four years," Kiffin said.
Place-kicker Andre Heidari, who made 15 of 17 field goals and all 50 of his extra-point attempts, made the All-Pac-12 team as a freshman. Punter Kris Albarado and long-snapper Peter McBride redshirted.
"You've got scholarship players at the three specialist positions," Kiffin said. "My point is that isn't for this year. That's for a long time. That's why it's so big. Those guys are either sophomores or redshirt freshmen. They still have three or four years."
Kiffin also signed two quarterbacks, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, and redshirted both, the post-Barkley years in mind. The rest of the class included four players who reached the starting lineup -- juco corner Isiah Wiley, linebacker Lamar Dawson, left guard Marcus Martin and, like Heidari, freshman All-American Marqise Lee -- and some talented players whom Kiffin insisted on redshirting.
Between those guys and the redshirt freshmen whom Kiffin threw onto the field last year, USC might start as many as 10 sophomores this season.
"I'm really glad we went in that direction," Kiffin said. "Not, 'We gotta win now; we went 8-5 [in 2010]. Now we gotta show people we can win.' We've got a long-term plan."
As well as Kiffin has played the cards dealt him, and as loud as the hype over Barkley and his teammates has become, USC still has a narrow window. From the base of 67 scholarships two years ago, all of the program's maneuvering has done a little more than tread water. Kiffin estimated that the Trojans will begin the season with 71. Since he plans to redshirt nine freshmen, that leaves USC with a roster of 62 available players.
In 2010, with so few players, Kiffin basically refused to allow his players to play full-contact football in August. When the season began, the Trojans' defense played as if it didn't know how to tackle. Kiffin now lets his first-team defense tackle his second-team offense and hopes that tackling drills will do the rest.
That means the Trojans can afford few injuries. Already, starting defensive end Devon Kennard tore a pectoral muscle during the summer and will miss a good chunk of the season.
"We're going to have to manage it really well by the way we practice," Kiffin said, "by the way we play in the games, rotations of people, special teams. But if you're going to have a really good year with a reduced roster, you've got to have some luck, and you've got to find a way to stay healthy."
It is a narrow window. The Trojans are trying to squeeze through it.