- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Stanford first-year coach Jim Harbaugh didn't realize that as he described where he wants to take the Cardinal, he explained why USC has been the best college football program of the last 10 years.
"You have to beat Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame for that kid in Ohio," Harbaugh said the other day. "Can you do that one time out of five? Florida for the Florida kid, Texas for the Texas kid -- we've got the means to recruit the whole nation."
You can point out all the other reasons that Pete Carroll has established USC as the alpha dog in the college football kennel:
• There is the tradition of winning that stretches back to Howard Jones, the coach whose name adorns the practice field in the middle of campus;
• There are the fans who fill up 92,000 seats for home games in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum;
• There is the bounty of talent available within a morning's drive. The three Heisman Trophy winners -- quarterbacks Carson Palmer (2002) and Matt Leinart (2004) and tailback Reggie Bush (2005) -- in this decade who played for Southern California all played their high school football in southern California;
• And there is Carroll, who has transmitted his love of competition to his players. You hear of quarterbacks who eliminate schools from consideration because the school signs another quarterback. USC doesn't seem to have that issue. Carroll has convinced players to come to USC because of the other top talent. He implores his players to compete every day, in every practice, and they have embraced his philosophy.
On top of all of that has been, as Harbaugh dreamed, the ability to sign the top players in other football-rich states to come west. There have been wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett and linebacker Brian Cushing from New Jersey, offensive lineman Jeff Byers from Colorado, wide receiver Patrick Turner from Tennessee, linebacker Keith Rivers from Florida and the newest import, tailback Joe McKnight from Louisiana. The ones who weren't named Gatorade Players of the Year were Parade All-Americans.
Mix all of that together and it's a recipe for two consecutive national championships -- and a few seconds away from a third.
USC got off to a slow start in the last 10 years. Carroll didn't arrive until December 2000, and anyone who recalls that the coaches in the previous four years were Paul Hackett and John Robinson either is a diehard Trojan or needs a hobby.
The point is that you could make the case that USC didn't dominate the decade long enough to deserve to be No. 1. But the most interesting observation to come out of this ranking is the realization that none of the teams has been dominant for 10 years. Bob Stoops has made No. 5 Oklahoma into a power over his eight seasons, but in the two years before his arrival, the Sooners won a total of nine games.
No. 4 Florida endured the moderate three-year dip under Ron Zook. The only team that can make a good case for 10 consecutive successful seasons is Ohio State, which is No. 2. The Buckeyes, however, have one fewer national championship than the Trojans, and their four seasons under John Cooper in this decade produced a lot of wins, but not enough of them in big games.
There is one part of the final ranking that rings true -- though Florida is the highest-ranked team from the Southeastern Conference, the league has four of the top 11 schools. That speaks not only to the SEC's dominance but its balance. Like Florida, No. 9 LSU and No. 10 Tennessee have won national championships in the last decade and No. 15 Auburn had the polls take away its opportunity to play for one in 2004.
In fact, the last SEC team to play for a national championship and lose: Florida in 1995 (the Gators have won two since).
The other teams that stand out in this top 25 are No. 18 Louisville, No. 22 Boston College and No. 24 TCU, each of which climbed high while switching conferences. The Cardinals (Conference USA to Big East) and the Horned Frogs (WAC to C-USA to Mountain West) improved their lot by their moves, while the jury is still out on the Eagles (Big East to ACC).
USC has been a member of the Pac-10 in its various forms since 1922. Over the last decade, however, the Trojans have been in a league of their own.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
With its two national championships, top-ranked recruiting classes and enthusiastic coach, USC made the strongest bid to be the top-ranked program in the last 10 years.