LOS ANGELES -- USC players don't want to hear about expectations or narrowing windows of opportunity or preseason rankings. After being shut out of the postseason for sins of the past, they are now shutting out the noise that surrounds the much-hyped 2012 team.
When the stern infractions were handed down two years ago -- which included a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions through 2014 -- several of the then-sophomores got together and made a pact that when they could return to the postseason, they would do so with a hunger. And the 2012 team is starving.
"As much as you want to hide it, knowing you could go 12-0 and it doesn't matter, well, it sucks," said safety T.J. McDonald. "You want to win every game, but knowing no matter what you do, you can't win a championship. That's why you come to USC.
"Now we can win every game and get to a bowl game. Hopefully a big one. We have big hopes. It's not a sense of urgency. But a sense that it's our time. It's a hunger."
When you look at the returning weapons -- the receivers, the running back, the secondary, the linebackers, the four offensive linemen -- it's easy to see why many are projecting USC as the preseason No. 1. And the quarterback, who made the phrase "serious unfinished business" as synonymous with USC as "Traveler," knows what this team is capable of.
"I think it's a special year for our team when you look at all of the talent and everyone we have coming back," said Matt Barkley, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and likely top-5 draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft. "But I don't think you can look forward and say, 'If we don't do it this year, we'll never do it.' That's flawed thinking and the wrong mindset to have. But I will say that I think we have a great shot to do it this year."
"It" being the national championship. But there are constant reminders for the players to keep their own expectations tempered. Chalked into the side of the practice field are the words "PREP NOT HYPE," a reminder that national championships are not won in the court of public opinion.
In the weight room, the 2012 schedule is up on the wall with white pieces of tape across every opponent save Hawaii -- the season opener on Sept. 1.
"I don't think our approach is going to be any different this year than it has been in the past when we didn't have a bowl game to go to," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. "We didn't change anything last year as far as preparation, so we don't want to change anything now. We didn't all of a sudden not coach as hard and it's not like we're going to start coaching hard."
Yet players say there was always that nagging reminder that there was no tangible prize at the end of the race.
"I think to those on the outside, it might look like we have a sense of urgency," McDonald said. "That's only because we've spent the last two Christmases watching other teams play. So is there a sense of urgency? Yes. But it's because we want it, not because other people think we should have it."
The Trojans are already starting to feel the effects of limited scholarships with depth issues across the board. It will only get worse with a maximum of 75 scholarships in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Plus, they can't sign more than 15 players in those years.
This season could also be one of vindication for Kiffin. A national championship -- or at least an appearance in the title game -- would validate him for holding the Trojans together through what many considered overly draconian sanctions.
Still, Kiffin says, nothing changes this year.
"There will be no difference in how we approach each game," Kiffin said. "It's not like you're going on the road against a top-5 opponent like Oregon and we start to coach differently and then the next week against UCLA who is unranked. [The expectations] have nothing to do with our preparation. Prep not hype. That explains it all. It will always be our preparation for the game, not the hype surrounding us or the game or the opponent."
Yet guys such as McDonald and Barkley can't help but think back to that meeting two years ago, when the sanctions were first handed down. And now they finally have the chance to put their plan into motion.
"We talked about when we got back, we want it to be like it was before," McDonald said. "We want to be able to live up to the standard, not just be part of any rebuilding process. Last year we had a good season and now we're exactly where we want to be. You don't come to SC to be under the radar. You don't come here to be underestimated. You come here to be at the top of the pack. We know we'll get attention. But we won't be arrogant or buy into it. And if people want to put us up front, that's fine. It makes us even more hungry to get it done."