Mississippi State’s rival Ole Miss is destined to receive harsh sanctions by the NCAA soon, so we wondered: How do teams respond to their rival receiving NCAA Sanctions?
We go to Los Angeles to get our first example of this trend, where the NCAA handed down harsh penalties to USC, including a bowl ban for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, 30 scholarship losses over three years, and to vacate all games Reggie Bush had played in after December of 2004. This included the 2005 National Championship USC had won in Miami, Florida, at the Orange Bowl.
UCLA & USC
The two teams of Los Angeles are USC and UCLA. Going into the 2010 season, UCLA was coming off a win in the Eagle Bank Bowl and had been expected to do particularly well in the upcoming season, however, this did not go according to plan. UCLA finished the 2010 season 4-8, as USC, which had only lost 10 scholarships to this point, went on to tally an 8-5 record under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin. But, UCLA soared past USC when the Trojans entered year two of their bowl ban and had now lost 20 scholarships, right? Wrong. USC finished the 2011 season 10-2, and dominated UCLA in their final game of the season 50-0. This was the 5th straight loss for the Bruins at the hands of the Trojans, but due to USC being barred from the post season, UCLA was 6-6 (5-4), and at second place behind USC in the South Division of the PAC 12. UCLA would go on to finish the season 6-8, losing in the PAC 12 championship to Oregon, 49-31, and then to Illinois in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. USC was now free to go to a bowl game, but the final year of their scholarship losses came in 2012, as USC had now lost 30 scholarships over three years. UCLA hired Jim Mora to lead the Bruins in 2012, and lead he did. Mora guided UCLA to a 9-5 record, including a win over USC for the first time in five seasons, and UCLA was going to back-to-back Pac 12 Championships, albeit under odd circumstances the year before. UCLA would end up dropping the Pac 12 Championship and Holiday Bowl, but still finished with a better record than their crosstown rival USC. USC would finish 7-6 in what would be Lane Kiffin’s last full season as USC’s head coach. UCLA would go on to finish 10-3 in back-to-back seasons, which many would think is an average to good season for UCLA. However, Los Angeles had been dominated by the Trojans and their record from 1990-2009 is a clear example of that. USC played in 13 bowl games in 19 years, not counting the two games that were vacated. USC would also win eight conference championships in this span of 19 years, again not counting the one they would vacate in 2005. USC also won a national championship during that span, but would have to vacate another from their 2004 season. UCLA, on the other hand, didn’t experience the same level of success. The traditional basketball powerhouse went to the same number of bowls before the sanctions were handed down, however, they didn’t receive much notoriety for their achievements, as they only amassed three conference championships, all occurring from 1990-1995. The Bruins would also not win a national championship like their inner-city rival did.
When we take a look at life after the sanctions, the difference can truly be seen, as UCLA would appear in two conference championships as well as appear in 5 bowl games from 2010-2016. The Bruins also recorded two 10-3 seasons. However, the Trojans rebounded rather quickly from their sanctions, as they appeared in five bowl games and would have been bowl eligible in every season during their sanctions, but were not due to the NCAA sanctions. The Trojans would have three 10-win seasons and a PAC 12 championship appearance from 2010-2016 making the era relatively similar for the Bruins and Trojans.
So, did UCLA benefit from USC’s misfortunes? Yes, and no. One could argue that UCLA had been relevant before, and being 10-3 in back-to-back seasons when your rival went 10-4 and 9-4 isn’t a very good outcome, but perception had changed. UCLA had established itself as a consistent powerhouse where as USC was labeled as a school winning the wrong way. UCLA didn’t achieve incredible success, but neither did USC, so in this case, I believe UCLA did take advantage of this situation in the recruiting capacity, as well as promoting a program that was doing things the right way. But the time has run out on UCLA, as they are coming off a 4-8 season and the Trojans, who look primed for a run at the PAC 12 crown, are coming off a season where they went 10-3 and return leading Heisman candidate Sam Darnold, who is projected to be a high draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Alabama & Auburn
The next example we take a look at is another powerhouse, Alabama, who almost received the death penalty due to repeated recruiting violations in 2002. The Crimson Tide received their sanctions in February of 2002, which included five years probation, scholarship reductions, as well as a two-year bowl ban. We dive into the fiercest rivalry and dissect the seasons Alabama was on probation and see just how Auburn capitalized on their rival’s misfortunes. We begin in 2002, the first year of sanctions for the Crimson Tide. Even with a bowl ban, scholarship reductions, and the first year of probation, the Tide finished with an impressive 10-3 record, but Auburn finished 9-4, including a win over their rival and a bowl game victory. Things were looking up for Auburn and not so much for the Tide. The next couple of years ended up being some of the worst in Alabama football history. In 2003, Alabama struggled to a 4-8 record during the final year of their bowl-ban, but again they lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which made it 0-2 for Alabama since receiving their sanctions from the NCAA. Auburn, on the other hand, went 8-5 with another bowl win and another year of winning their in-state battle. However, the biggest talent gap and difference in on-field success came in 2004. Alabama had served their two-year bowl ban, and this season would be able to make it to a bowl game, which they did as they finished the season 6-6. But they had Iron Bowl loss, now bringing the tally to 0-3 in the Iron Bowl since the sanctions were handed down. Auburn went 13-0 and won a SEC Championship. The programs looked to be in totally different places, with Auburn having Tommy Tuberville and Alabama going with Mike Schula, which would end up costing them in the future. Insert the final years of probation for the Tide from 2005-2007, things were poised to be better, and at the time they were improving to 10-2 in 2005, but in 2009 had to vacate all of the victories between 2005-2006- and five during 2007 season, because of impermissible benefits to student athletes via Alabama’s bookstore. Auburn continued to succeed between these years as they would not lose an Iron Bowl during the entirety of Alabama’s five-year probation period from 2002-2007.
Auburn is a shining example of how Alabama’s probation led to their success, which included a National Championship. Auburn also did not miss a bowl game during the stretch of five years, while the Tide made it to two bowl games with the others being vacated during the time frame, as well as only two wins during the 2007 season counting. Auburn looked to be in great shape in terms of “taking over” the state of Alabama, but obviously, that didn’t happen, as a man named Nick Saban halted their run. Auburn was primed to make a run, but Saban stopped them in their tracks. Since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Auburn has won just two Iron Bowls and one National Championship to Alabama’s four.
So, do teams do better when their rival is put on NCAA probation and receive severe sanctions? Yes, and it is evident from Auburn’s full example and UCLA’s limited one that, when their adversaries were faced with sanctions they rose to the challenge and put up great seasons during these trying times for their foes.