Trojans need to prove ranking no fluke

After not being eligible for a bowl game or a conference championship over the past two seasons, USC has risen up enough to become the No. 1 team in the first AP poll of the season.

The rebound isn’t complete quite yet – the Trojans now have to win when the lights are on – but for a program that was supposed to be hamstrung for years by NCAA sanctions, this ranking is a validation of the job Lane Kiffin was able to do to keep the program afloat during the down years.

It also shows how important one player can be.

Had quarterback Matt Barkley decided to leave early for the NFL, USC wouldn’t be the preseason No. 1 team and might be lucky to be in the top five. But he’s back, and so is USC with all the expectations and pressure of being considered the top team in the country once again.

On the flip side, this is the first ranking to come out since LSU lost Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu, who was booted off the team for alleged substance use. The Tigers are No. 1 in the preseason Coaches’ Poll – which actually matters more in terms of the BCS rankings – but fell to third behind USC and Alabama in the AP.

It doesn’t really make a difference for LSU — if it gets through the season clean, with a win over Alabama, it’s going to play in the BCS Championship Game and it’s going to finish the year as the No. 1 team in AP by going 14-0.

For the Trojans, who were ranked third in the preseason Coaches’ Poll, the top spot in the AP rankings will be justification and validation for down the road. If there’s another scenario like last season, with Alabama losing to LSU in a regular-season squeaker, then the Coaches and Harris polls won’t have any problem making sure USC is in the top two. Everyone would want to see an undefeated AP No. 1 team play the LSU-Alabama winner for the national title.

The AP rankings set up a few huge matchups for down the road, with USC hosting No. 5 Oregon and Alabama facing No. 3 LSU — both on Nov. 3.

The SEC is the big winner overall with five teams – No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 LSU, No. 6 Georgia, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Arkansas – in the top 10. Arkansas has to face Alabama, LSU and South Carolina, while the Gamecocks have to go to Georgia on Oct. 6.

Ohio State and Penn State might not be eligible to win the conference title or go bowling this year, but it was a good first ranking for the Big Ten with Michigan starting out at No. 8, Wisconsin No. 12, Michigan State No. 13, Nebraska No. 17 and Ohio State No. 18. The big tests for the league will come early on with Michigan kicking things off against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and Michigan State hosting No. 24 Boise State.

There wasn’t much respect given to some of last year’s most important teams, with Fiesta Bowl winner Oklahoma State starting out 19th, Andrew Luck-less Stanford checking in at 21st and Sugar Bowl loser Virginia Tech at No. 16.

Along with the USC rebound comes a resurgence for two other major power programs. Florida State is the favorite in the ACC starting out at No. 7, while Texas checks in at a respectable 15, with plenty of chances to move up in a hurry, going to Oklahoma State on Sept. 29, hosting No. 11 West Virginia the week after, and following those to battles with the rivalry date against No. 3 Oklahoma.

But the 2012 preseason AP poll is all about USC.

Is this really the rebirth of the superpower that rolls through the last decade, or are the expectations now set a little bit too high?

The Trojans are No. 1, and this year they get a chance to prove it.