The University of Southern California has one of the oldest college football programs in the country. It is also one of the most successful programs, historically. The team first started 1888. But in the last 95 seasons, the Trojans boast a record of 725 wins, 295 losses and 40 ties. It’s an incredible winning percentage that features 37 conference championships – in what was once called the Pacific Coast Conference and has slowly evolved into the Pacific-12 Conference.
They also have 35 total bowl wins in college football, which has solidified them as one of the most winningest programs overall. They lead all college football programs with 497 total players selected in the annual NFL Draft – Notre Dame is second with 493, followed by Ohio State with 430. The Trojans also boast having the most Pro Football Hall of Famers in their alumni list with 11 – Notre Dame is once again second with 10, followed by Ohio State with nine.
There have been a number of great players to have begun their football legacies at USC. Those names include great running backs like Marcus Allen and O.J. Simpson, as well as defensive stars like Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu. However, no college football program is perfect. There are always going to be a few busts in each school’s history.
Even with the great legacy that the USC Trojans have built, there are still some players who came in with five-star recruiting grades and a lot of potential. While a few succeeded, many have fell short of expectations. The following list takes a look at both the success stories and the failure in USC football history.
15 BEST – Carson Palmer
Quarterback Carson Palmer has certainly endured a lot during his entire football career. He’s been injured a number of times during his career in the NFL through 13 seasons in Cincinnati, Oakland and now Arizona. Still, he currently has 44,269 passing yards. But he also had to preserver through tough seasons with the USC Trojans before all of that.
Palmer first played as a freshman in 1998, where he completed just 55 percent with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He was injured and missed most of the 1999 season. He returned in 2000 where he struggled in a 5-7 season. But Pete Carroll became the head coach in 2001. One year later, Palmer had a big year with 3,942 passing yards and 33 touchdowns to win the Heisman Trophy. He would then be selected first overall in the 2003 NFL Draft.
14 WORST – Max Browne
While he still has a senior year left in his collegiate career in 2017, it’s highly unlikely he will have a chance to redeem himself. Sam Darnold took over as a true freshman in the middle of the 2016 season to save what could have been a disastrous year for USC. Browne had a rough go as in his first ever start against the Alabama Crimson Tide – completing 14 of 29 for 101 yards and one interception in the 52-6 loss.
Darnold began to take some reps in the next two games that the Trojans split. Browne’s struggles to get the offense points in a 27-10 loss to Stanford led to Darnold becoming the full-time starter – going on a 9-1 run to end the season. Before 2016, Browne never really impressed anyone as he played limited minutes as a freshman and sophomore.
13 BEST – Lynn Swann
Lynn Swann might not have the flashiest numbers among USC wide receivers. But Swann also played in a different era of the game. In the early 1970s, running was still a big part of the game and passing wasn’t the main priority at the time for the Trojans. They were certainly not the aerial assault team that dominated college football in the 1990s and 2000s. Still, Swann had made the most of his chances.
Through three seasons from 1971 to 1973, Swann averaged 16.3 yards per catch with 96 career receptions. Swann would finish with 1,562 career yards and 11 touchdowns. He had 714 yards to lead the Pac-8 in the 1973 season; earning him All-American status. Swann would continue to the Pittsburgh Steelers where he won four Super Bowl rings in a Hall of Fame career.
12 WORST – Reggie Perry
The 1990s featured a lot of ups and downs before the eventual arrival of Pete Carroll as the head coach of the USC Trojans. One season after their Sun Bowl Appearance, the 1991 Trojans went from eight wins to only three as one of the worst teams in the Pac-10 Conference. A big part of that was the subpar quarterback play of one Reggie Perry. He certainly wasn’t a Todd Marinovich from the previous season.
Perry completed just 51.4 percent of his passes for 1,574 yards, three touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The only redeeming factor he had was his running abilities with five rushing touchdowns. He would lose the starting job to Rob Johnson after completing just 47.6 percent of his attempts in the 1992 season.
11 BEST – Junior Seau
Linebacker Junior Seau didn’t have a long run with the USC Trojans. In fact, his time was very brief. Part of that was because he was short of the the USC’s minimum SAT score and had to sit out the freshman season. Seau didn’t start as a sophomore, but still earned 35 tackles and four sacks. But he would be unleashed as the Trojans’ outside linebacker in the 1989 season. USC would showcase someone known for hitting with plenty of power and passion.
Seau’s enthusiasm on the field led to 27 tackles for loss, nine sacks, 12 pass deflections and one interception in a season where the Trojans would defeat the Michigan Wolverines in the 1990 Rose Bowl. As the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Seau would leave USC early to play in the NFL. Seau would become a Hall of Fame star with 1,522 tackles, 56.5 sacks and 18 interceptions over the course of 20 NFL seasons.
10 WORST – Antwine Perez
Antwine Perez is an example of a highly recruited player who many had big expectations for as he came out of high school. With several top programs going after him, Perez had a lot of attention as the 10th-ranked player in ESPN’s rankings for the Class of 2006. Perez would choose to play for USC over the Michigan Wolverines. However, he struggled to find playing time as a freshman at USC.
Perez only played in seven games and still only had three tackles. He would transfer to the University of Maryland, but had to sit out the 2007 season. From 2008 to 2010, he barely did much with the Terrapins until he had 74 tackles in his senior season. However, Perez was considered a bust as a five-star recruit for the Trojans.
9 Best – Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu was likely one of the hardest hitting defensive backs in USC football history. He terrorized wide receivers and running backs alike with his ability to pursue whoever had the ball. And anyone who happened to be carrying that ball would certainly regret it with a sore body after the game. Polamalu would play three seasons with the Trojans from 2000 to 2002. In that time, he built a reputation of delivering hard hits.
But he was also great in pass coverage. In his three seasons, Polamalu finished with six interceptions. Three of those picks he turned into six points the other way. Polamalu was able to continue that style into a successful 12-year NFL career – 581 tackles, 32 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles.
8 WORST – Matt Cassel
Quarterback Matt Cassel is a very peculiar case in the world of football. He was recruited with a certain level of expectation coming out of high school and into the USC Trojan program in 2001. He was with the Trojans for four collegiate seasons and barely got on the field. In fact, he only threw the ball 33 times in those four years. In those attempts he had 20 completions, 192 yards and one interception.
However, Cassel would still be drafted in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. He sat on the bench for the first three seasons before taking over for an injured Tom Brady in 2008 – taking the team on a 10-5 run (Brady won the first game of the season) with 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns. He’s bounced around the league since them as both a starter and a backup. He’s played a lot in the NFL with 17,287 career passing yards for a six different teams.
7 BEST – Reggie Bush
Reggie Bush is an example of a collegiate football star who never quite had the same success when he came to the NFL. In an 11-year career with five different teams, he only has 5,490 yards and 36 touchdowns. But when he was playing for the USC Trojans, Bush looked like the next big thing coming out of the backfield. Even as a freshman in 2003 with only 90 carries, he made things happen for 521 yards.
His role increased as a sophomore in 2004 with 908 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 43 passes for 509 yards and seven touchdowns. His junior season, his last before going pro, saw him rush for 1,740 yards with an average of 8.7 yards per carry. Bush was a playmaker that made the Trojans a top contender. Bush would win the 2005 Heisman Trophy and be drafted second overall by New Orleans in the 2006 NFL Draft.
6 WORST – Kyle Prater
The USC Trojans were usually a top choice among many of the five-star high school recruits during the 2000s. Kyle Prater was a highly touted wide receiver who gained a lot of attention as the best receiver in the state of Illinois. He earned All-American status with the USA Today and many other high school sports websites. There were some concerns when Pete Carroll left as head coach, with him unsure about fulfilling his obligation.
He remained with the Trojans, but was redshirted in 2010. He would have a very brief appearance for the Trojans in 2011 with just one catch for six yards. After that, Prater announced he was transferring to Northwestern University in Illinois. He didn’t do much better with 648 yards and two touchdowns in three years with the Wildcats. Overall, Prater was another five-star recruiting bust.
5 BEST – Ronnie Lott
There are some players who have graced the USC Trojans’ secondary over the years that seem like they are able to sneak into a quarterback’s throw. Defensive back Ronnie Lott certainly had good enough hands to make the most of the passes thrown in his direction. He first saw the field in 1978 and had three interceptions in 13 games. But Lott was just getting warmed up. He had another three in 1979; one was returned for a touchdown.
Lott had his best year in his last season with the Trojans in 1980. Lott would have eight interceptions and had an average return of more than 20 yards and another touchdown. Lott followed that up with a Hall of Fame career in the NFL – playing for San Francisco, Oakland and the New York Jets. Overall, he finished with 1,113 tackles and 63 interceptions over 14 professional seasons.
4 WORST – Wilbur Robertson
While most seasons in USC football history were winning seasons, 1950 was probably the worst in school history. The Trojans were ranked 101st in the country in points per game, averaging just 12.7 through the season. It was the main reason they finished with a record of two wins, five losses and two ties. Wilbur Robertson was the quarterback for the Trojans and had some of the worst numbers imaginable.
Keep in mind, this was an era where running was still the main focus for teams. Still, Robertson completed just 47.2 percent of his throws for 492 yards, one touchdown and eight interceptions. He struggled running the ball as he averaged only 1.8 yards per carry. The best quarterback play was by Frank Gifford in the 20-20 tie against Washington State – scoring two touchdowns and kicking two extra points.
3 BEST – O.J. Simpson
When talking about some of the greatest running backs to wear the crimson and gold, O.J. Simpson deserves to be in the discussion. He was with the Trojans when the Athletic Association of Western Universities would become the Pac-8 (now Pac-12). He only played in two seasons with USC, but he had more rushing yards than a lot of running backs who play three or four seasons.
In 1967, Simpson rushed for 1,543 yards and 13 touchdowns while having less than 300 carries. His opportunities increased and so did his production in 1968. Simpson would finish his college career with 1,880 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns on the way to winning the 1968 Heisman Trophy. Simpson would then turn that around into a Hall of Fame career with 11,236 yards – highlighted by having 2,003 yards in 1973.
2 WORST – Whitney Lewis
When Whitney Lewis declared that he was going to play college football for the USC Trojans, there was a high level of excitement. He was an All-American and had plenty of impressive numbers at St. Bonaventure High School in Oxnard, Calif. – including 42 rushing touchdowns as a senior. Many people at the time in 2002 thought he was someone a program couldn’t miss out on. Unfortunately, he missed on his opportunity by first arriving to campus overweight.
Lewis only played in the 2003 season where he had three receptions for just 27 yards. He also ran the ball three times for 11 yards. He continued to have troubles getting a roster spot after struggling with his grades. Lewis would then transfer to Northern Iowa. Thankfully, the Trojans also had Reggie Bush come out of the same recruiting class.
1 BEST – Marcus Allen
Not only was he one of the best running backs in USC history, but Allen is arguably considered one of the best running backs in all of football. Before he rushed for more than 12,000 yards and 123 touchdowns with Oakland and Kansas City in the NFL, Allen was a star for the Trojans in the early 1980s. He had little bits of playing time as a freshman and sophomore in 1978 and 1979 – still rushing for more than five yards per carry.
But he had a big breakout in 1980 as a junior with 1,563 yards and 14 touchdowns. But it was during his senior season when Allen had his biggest rushing numbers; 2,427 yards and 22 touchdowns on 433 carries. Allen would win the 1981 Heiman Trophy in that senior year, which earned him a high draft spot, being selected 10th overall by the Los Angeles Raiders.