NEW YORK -- Southern California is No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25, tossing off the weight of NCAA sanctions and returning to a familiar place in the rankings -- thanks to a boost from LSU's problems.
USC earned the top spot in AP's preseason college football poll for the seventh time in school history and the first time in the past five seasons, edging No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 LSU.
Oklahoma was fourth with one first-place vote and Oregon was fifth. Michigan, at No. 8, received the only other first-place vote. Big 12 Conference newcomer West Virginia was ranked 11th.
The Trojans, banned from postseason play the past two seasons, received 25 of 60 first-place votes from a media panel in a close vote. Southern California received 1,445 points. Defending national champion Alabama had 17 first-place votes and 1,411 points while LSU, the Crimson Tide's Southeastern 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. "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."
LSU was poised to start the season No. 1 before Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the team a week ago. In light of that, the AP extended the voting deadline. Before Mathieu was dismissed, reportedly for failed drug tests, LSU had received 28 of 60 first-place votes. USC was a close second with 22 first-place votes and Alabama third with nine.
The USA Today coaches' poll, released Aug. 2, had LSU No. 1, followed by Alabama and USC.
Rounding out the top 10 in the AP was Georgia at No. 6, followed by Florida State and Michigan. No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Arkansas give the SEC half 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 said.
Kiffin was an assistant coach for USC for its previous great run. From 2001-09 under coach Pete Carroll, the Trojans won two national titles and played for a third, made seven consecutive Bowl Championship Series game appearances and had three Heisman Trophy winners in Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. At one point, USC spent a record 33 weeks in a row at No. 1.
But Carroll left for the NFL after the '09 season, and Kiffin was hired to replace him. A few months later, the NCAA hit the Trojans with a two-year bowl ban, plus scholarship limitations and probation because Bush and his family received impermissible benefits.
USC went 8-5 in '10, then charged back to 10-2 a year ago. 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.
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."
If USC has questions, it's on defense, where the line is thin. The pass defense was spotty last season. Some potent Pac-12 offenses will provide plenty of tests, none stiffer than Nov. 3 when Oregon visits Los Angeles for the first of a possible two contests with the Trojans.
USC and Oregon could also meet in the Pac-12 title game.