Is USC football a "sleeping giant?" That's what Phil Steele, noted college football guru, has to say about the 'Cocks. We'd all love, for sure, to believe him. Should we, though? Is it possible that our program, with its meager history, could one day consistently contend for SEC titles?
To me, the key to success is all about recruiting. Lots of people are quick to blame the coach and not the players when things go wrong, and there are times when that's appropriate, such as when Ron Zook was unable to win at Florida with all the talent he had at his disposal. However, most of the time, a coach is only as good as the players on the field. In that regard, we've always been behind the best programs in the SEC. We've made some strides over the past few years, but in the East we remain a step behind Tennessee, a little more behind UGA, and way behind Florida. I'm willing to argue that that's why we're 2-3 against the Vols and 1-4 against UGA and UF (with some UF games ending in complete blowouts) over Spurrier's tenure.
Of course, you can blame recruiting failures on the coaches, too, but it's also abundantly clear that our history gives our rivals a lot of negative recruiting ammo on the prep trail. What do we have to do to combat those barbs?
Simply put, locking down the state of SC has to be our recruiters' top priority. It's not Florida or Texas, but there's enough talent in this state to support a successful football program. Moreover, most of the high school kids these days grew up watching the at least decent USC football of 2000 to the present, so a lot of players that probably wouldn't have been interested in us 20 years ago are today.
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Two problems continue to present themselves, though: we continue to lose premier prospects to powerhouse out-of-state programs (A.J. Green, Carlos Dunlap, Eric Mack, and John Fulton, to name only a few recent examples) and we continue to have to share the state's talent base with Clemson. To make the next step in the SEC, those two things have to stop. We have to start closing on more bluechip prospects that are getting attention from out-of-state programs, and we have to start convincing more of the best kids that stay in-state to come to Carolina instead of Clemson.
Of course, to do those things, we have to start beating those teams more often. To do that, though, we have to start getting better talent. Since we don't win enough to get that talent consistently, it's going to be hard to beat those teams more often. We're certainly still far from being able to expect consistent wins (i. e., at least split the series) over Georgia and even less so over Florida, and even if we have arguably nearly closed the gap with Clemson (the record over the last ten years doesn't say so, but I think we're very close), we need to do more than close the gap against them to dominate them in recruiting.
If I sound a bit pessimistic about our ability to break through, I should say that we're a lot closer than we used to be. Getting players like Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore to choose USC over elite programs is a step in the right direction. In the SEC, though, the bar is very high, and we still have a ways to go.