Southern California is No. 1 in the AP Top 25, tossing off the weight of NCAA sanctions and returning to a familiar place in the rankings — with a boost from LSU's problems.
USC earned the top spot in The Associated Press' preseason college football poll for the seventh time in school history and the first time in five seasons, edging out No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 LSU.
The Trojans, who were banned from postseason play the past two seasons, received 25 of a possible 60 first-place votes from a media panel in a close vote. USC received 1,445 points. Defending national champion Alabama had 17 first-place votes and 1,411 points while LSU, the Crimson Tide's SEC rival, got 16 first-place votes and 1,402 points.
"We definitely didn't come here to be underdogs," Trojans safety T.J. McDonald said Saturday. "The ranking doesn't mean we've done anything as a team. But it's good to see we're back where we're supposed to be."
Oklahoma was fourth with a single first-place vote and Oregon was fifth. Michigan, at No. 8, received the only other first-place vote.
The Tigers were poised to start the season No. 1 before Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu got kicked off the team a week ago.
In light of that development, the AP extended the voting deadline. Before Mathieu was dismissed, reportedly for failed drug tests, LSU had received 28 of a possible 60 first-place votes. USC was a close second with 22 first-place votes and Alabama was third with nine.
The USA Today coaches' poll, which was released Aug. 2, had LSU at No. 1, followed by Alabama and USC.
Rounding out the top 10 in the AP rankings, Georgia was No. 6, followed by Florida State and Michigan. No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Arkansas give the Southeastern Conference half of the first 10 teams.
For the Trojans, their return to national championship contention comes just two years after the program was hit by NCAA sanctions that seemed crippling at the time.
"To be handed down what they said could be a death penalty, could take USC 10 years to come back from, then to have this recognition and be preseason No. 1 is very exciting for our fans because a lot people thought two years ago that this would not be possible for USC," coach Lane Kiffin told the AP.
Kiffin was an assistant coach for USC during its last great run. From 2001-09 under coach Pete Carroll, the Trojans won two national titles and played for a third, made seven straight BCS appearances and had three Heisman Trophy winners in Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. At one point, USC spent a record 33 straight weeks at No. 1.
But Carroll left for the NFL after the 2009 season and Kiffin was hired to replace him. A few months later the NCAA hit USC with a two-year bowl ban, plus scholarship limitations and probation because Bush and his family received impermissible benefits.
USC went 8-5 in 2010, then charged back to 10-2 last season. And when star quarterback Matt Barkley decided to stick around for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft, the Trojans, free from the bowl ban, were set to make a run at No. 1.
"There's not a roof over our heads now," McDonald said.
And USC is once again trendy in Los Angeles.
"Do you feel that? Sure you do," Kiffin said. "Games already sold out. Just the energy around it. All those different things. That's how it was before. I've talked to these players about it."
With Barkley, the preseason Heisman favorite, along with receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, plus running backs Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd, these Trojans have drawn comparisons to those great Leinart/Bush offenses.
"They are going to be successful because of the work they put in and not because of the hype," Kiffin said.
If USC has questions, it's on the defensive side, where the line is thin and the pass defense was spotty last season. Those potent Pac-12 offenses will provide plenty of tests, none stiffer than on Nov. 3 when Oregon comes to the Coliseum for the first of a possible two contests with the Trojans.
USC and Oregon could also meet in the Pac-12 title game.
Trojans-Ducks might be only the second-biggest game of the day on Nov. 3.
That will also be the day of Round III of Alabama-LSU, after the Tide and Tigers played twice last season, the second time in the BCS title game.
Alabama won the rematch 21-0 to take its second national title in the last three seasons under coach Nick Saban. The Tide are rebuilding on defense, but return quarterback A.J. McCarron and one of the best offensive lines in the country.
LSU has a new quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, who the Tigers hope will give the passing game more punch, and much of last year's fearsome defense is back — except Mathieu.
The defensive back nicknamed Honey Badger became a surprising Heisman contender with a slew of game-changing plays last season. He scored four touchdowns, two on punt returns and two on fumble returns.
His departure was met with mixed reaction by voters, but in a tight race for No. 1 it made a difference.
"Tyrann Mathieu's a terrific player, but I don't think the overall effect will change LSU's results," said John Silver from the Journal Inquirer of Connecticut, who did not change his ballot after the Mathieu news. "I don't think a corner can make that big of a difference. It hurts them, but at the margins."
Seth Emerson of The Macon (Georgia) Telegraph dropped LSU from No. 1 to No. 3, behind Alabama and USC.
"On the one hand, he wasn't exactly known as a lock-down cornerback and LSU has plenty of other talent. On the other hand, I was in the Georgia Dome last year when Mathieu single-handedly turned the tide of the SEC championship," Emerson wrote on his blog. "He's a dynamic player. There's a reason he was fifth in the Heisman voting.
"That's why I moved LSU to third, but not any further down."
The rest of the Top 25 was heavy on Big 12 and Big Ten teams.
Big 12 newcomer West Virginia was 11th, followed by Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The Big 12 also placed Texas (No. 15), Oklahoma State (No. 19), TCU (No. 20) and Kansas State (No. 22) in the rankings to give the league six teams overall, matching the SEC for the most.
No. 23 Florida is the sixth SEC squad.
The Big Ten added Nebraska (No. 17) and Ohio State (No. 18) for a total of five teams. The Buckeyes, in their first season under coach Urban Meyer, are banned for the postseason this season because of NCAA sanctions.
Defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson (No. 14) and Virginia Tech (No. 16) give the ACC three teams in the Top 25.
No. 21 Stanford is the third Pac-12 team in the poll.
No. 24 Boise State is ranked in the preseason for the fourth straight year and No. 25 Louisville is the only Big East school in the rankings.