A poll apart could be USC’s salvation

After weeks of bad news, asterisks, sanctions, appeals, record-expunging and acts of contrition (but not apology), USC football finally has poll numbers to celebrate.

Prohibited by NCAA probation from appearing in the USA Today coaches’ and Harris Interactive polls, and banned from competing for this year’s Bowl Championship Series title, the Trojans desperately needed a hug.

Saturday, the Associated Press preseason college football poll opened its arms.

Not only was USC allowed to be in it, debuting at No. 14, the Trojans are allowed to win it. (Alabama, no surprise, opened at No. 1.)

Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, the AP will be there.

Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, the AP will be there.

Wherever there’s a marching band playing Fleetwood Mac . . .

In 2003, when USC finished No. 1 in both polls, but No. 3 in the BCS standings, which prevented the Trojans from playing for the “national” title, the AP saw the injustice and independently crowned USC its champion.

And just a few weeks ago, when USC effectively sealed its vacation of the 2004 BCS title by admitting to some of the NCAA’s charges (while appealing others), the AP stepped up again and said it would not strip the Trojans.

The AP, in setting up guidelines, doesn’t beat around the Reggie Bush, stipulating:

Teams on NCAA probation ARE eligible for the AP poll.

“The AP’s instructions are clear,” says voter Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News. “Base your vote on performance. I wouldn’t hesitate to vote USC No. 1 in the final poll if I thought they deserved it.”

Easier said, of course, than won, considering the Trojans would need to finish 13-0.

Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman, who has USC at No. 11, says the Trojans have no margin of error.

He says USC would “at least have to be the only undefeated team left, they’d have to dominate all season and I’d have to have serious reservations about the BCS champion.”

It would probably take something like 2007, when two-loss Louisiana State won the BCS title.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to vote the Trojans No. 1,” Kirk Bohls, AP voter and columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, wrote in an e-mail response. ". . . They’d have to be an impressive undefeated team in all likelihood, but I would have no reservations about voting them at the top.”

Bohls has USC ranked No. 19 on his first ballot.

Tom Keegan of the Lawrence Journal-World, who has USC at No. 18, thinks any team allowed in the poll has a right to win it — even if it means swallowing hard.

Keegan: “If a team on probation is allowed to play games and plays them better than anyone else, I guess I’d vote that team No. 1. I’d feel a little sleazier doing so, but I wouldn’t let that stop me.”

No AP voter who responded to a random and informal query said he would punish USC for being on probation.

Glenn Guilbeau of Gannett News Service reported back that he is not a voter this year.

“If interested, though,” he said, “I would not vote a team on probation because it would award a convicted cheater.”

The Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta, who has USC at preseason No. 13, doesn’t believe current players should be punished for past sins.

“I won’t hold the probation against them,” he said, “especially in this case since the sanctions had nothing to do with building this team.”

Andy Staples of agreed with Condotta.

“These kids didn’t have anything to do with the money Reggie Bush took,” Staples said. “They’re suffering for it, but if they prove themselves to be the nation’s best team, they deserve some sort of acknowledgement.”

Clearly, tough, USC was a tricky voting proposition.

Wade Denniston of the Logan (Utah) Herald Journal doesn’t have USC ranked at all. But Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News and Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald both have USC at No. 6.

“If they’re eligible to be in the poll, I can’t pretend they don’t exist,” Conroy says.

Cecil agrees, but has reservations: “Even if the Trojans run the table, I am not sure I could simply assume that they would win the title game. That seems like rewarding them for being sanctioned and not having to play an additional game. So in that sense, the NCAA penalties could affect my vote.”

You may ask: How legitimate is the AP poll?

After being part of the BCS formula from 1998 through 2004, the AP asked that it be removed after voting peculiarities in the Texas vs. California race for the Rose Bowl in ’04 raised serious conflict-of-interest issues. Harris Interactive replaced the AP in the BCS formula.

The AP poll, however, was always independent of the BCS, as it proved in 2003 by siding with USC and not LSU.

The AP has been crowning annual champions since 1936, compared with the coaches’ poll, which started in 1950.

After the controversy that erupted in 2003 with the BCS, USC fans might argue the AP’s is the most credible poll in a sport without a playoff.

There is also precedent for a team on probation winning the AP title. In 1957, an undefeated Auburn team claimed the AP despite being on probation and ineligible for bowls for 1956 and ’57.

The coaches’ poll, administered then by United Press International, at that time allowed schools on probation to be considered but awarded its title in 1957 to Ohio State (Auburn was No. 2).

In 1974, the UPI coaches’ poll for the first time decided to make schools on probation ineligible, which, interestingly, benefited a team with a white horse as a mascot.

Oklahoma, the nation’s only undefeated major college team that year, won the AP crown . . . while on probation.

The coaches opted for USC, which finished 10-1-1, including an opening defeat to Arkansas and later a 15-15 tie with California.

The Trojans were led by a quarterback who is now the school’s athletic director: Pat Haden.

Before USC fans get carried away, remember: This AP chance is only a crack in the door. The nonconference schedule might actually be too easy to overcome the lack of a bowl game.

“The Trojans need Notre Dame and Minnesota to have solid seasons,” Wilner of the San Jose newspaper says. “They need the SEC’s top team to finish with two losses, and they need to be 13-0 with nobody else undefeated. Should be no problem, right?”

Also, before USC declares this “Take an AP voter to lunch week,” carefully consider another AP guideline:

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