Despite ban, USC has reason to play

Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden knows what it's like to coach a college football team which has seemingly nothing to play for.

In Bowden's first season at Auburn in 1993, the Tigers were ineligible to play in a postseason bowl game and banned from playing games on TV because of NCAA-imposed sanctions for violations committed under former coach Pat Dye.

"When the season happened, we rallied around it," said Bowden, now the head coach at NCAA Division II North Alabama. "We began to win a few games. The team, the esprit de corps, made the difference. We played for each other. We told each other, 'It's only about us.' We weren't on TV so it was only about us."

USC, which was placed on four years' probation by the NCAA on Thursday, will face that same dilemma this coming season. The Trojans were banned from postseason play for two years and will have 10 fewer scholarships in each of the next three seasons.

"I'm sure SC has to find a way to play for something," Bowden said. "What really hurts USC is that each year, they're competitive for the Pac-10 championship and the national championship. To take away their postseason play and their scholarships could have a pretty good long-term effect."

Somehow, Bowden motivated his Auburn team during the 1993 season, even when there was no carrot dangling at the end of the string.

"For us, there were no expectations," Bowden said. "Alabama was coming off the national championship. We were coming off three straight losses to Alabama."

The Tigers defeated Ole Miss 16-12 in Bowden's first game at Auburn on Sept. 2, 1993, and kept winning. They finished 11-0, defeating No. 4 Florida 38-35 and No. 11 Alabama 22-14 in the Iron Bowl. Bowden became the first coach to finish undefeated in his first season in NCAA Division I football.

But when the regular season ended, Auburn's season was over. Since the Tigers were ineligible to play in a bowl game -- they were banned from playing in the postseason for two years -- they couldn't compete for the national championship.

Ironically, Bowden's father, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, won his first national championship in 1993. FSU and Nebraska each had one loss when they played in the 1994 Orange Bowl, and undefeated Auburn could only watch them play for the title. The Seminoles defeated the Cornhuskers 18-16.

"If we hadn't been ineligible, my dad wouldn't have won his first title," Bowden said. "It [the bowl ban] took away something we will never get back. We had a chemistry team. We were not as talented as my father's teams. They won it all. To say it demoralized us or slowed us down, without the lack of scholarships, that's just not true."

The Trojans already faced tempered expectations going into the 2010 season. USC is coming off a 9-4 season, its worst finish under former coach Pete Carroll since a 6-6 mark in his first season in 2001. After playing in seven consecutive BCS bowl games from 2002 to '08, the Trojans finished the '09 season in the Emerald Bowl.

Carroll, who led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and at least a share of two national championships, bolted for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 10.

The Trojans hired former assistant Lane Kiffin, who had a 7-6 record at Tennessee in '09, his only season as a college head coach.

Kiffin inherited a USC team that expected to return 12 starters, including sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley. The Trojans have to replace their leading rusher, receiver and two top offensive linemen. Six starters are expected back on defense, but the entire secondary has to be replaced.

After learning of the severe NCAA penalties on Thursday, Kiffin still insisted the Trojans wouldn't slip far.

"USC is an extremely powerful place," Kiffin told reporters in Los Angeles. "It's a very powerful university and it's a very powerful football program. USC has gone through a lot before."

But recent college football history -- and USC's own history -- suggests the Trojans will have a hard time recovering from the NCAA sanctions. From 1983 to '94, Miami won four national championships and had 10 10-win seasons. In 1995, the Hurricanes were banned from postseason play for one year and stripped of 32 scholarships over three years.

In 1997, the Hurricanes suffered their first losing season since 1979 and it took them six years to get back to a January bowl game.

USC was banned from postseason play in 1980 because of Pac-10 sanctions and again in '82 and '83 because of NCAA penalties. The Trojans won the 1984 Pac-10 title and played in the Rose Bowl, but then went 6-6 in '85 and 7-5 in '86. They played in the Rose Bowl for three straight seasons from 1988 to '90.

"From a recruiting standpoint, I don't think kids in Southern California will be held off by a couple of years of no bowls," Bowden said. "What will hurt is if they can't put [85 players] out there like they want to."

Kiffin's first priority might be keeping his current players. Under NCAA rules, a one-year penalty for transferring between FBS schools might be waived if a student-athlete's current school is placed on NCAA probation, which includes a postseason ban.

Under NCAA rule No. 14.8.2 (c), USC's current juniors and seniors can transfer without penalty because the Trojans are banned from postseason play for the duration of their college eligibility.

Incoming freshmen who signed national letters of intent with the Trojans in February also can ask the school to release them, which would allow them to transfer to other schools. USC released three incoming men's basketball players when it self-imposed penalties last year.

"I don't think it's going to have an impact on our recruiting," Kiffin said. "We've talked to a lot of people -- from our team to our signees to recruits -- and we did not feel an impact at all. USC is still USC. We're still going to play a high level of football. You're still going to get a good education when you come to USC."

But, like Bowden at Auburn 17 years ago, Kiffin is going to have to find a way to motivate the Trojans this coming season.

"We're still going to have our whole entire season," middle linebacker Chris Galippo told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a bummer, that's all it is."

A bummer indeed.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.