Maintaining an even keel

LOS ANGELES -- When the USC Trojans were running roughshod over the Pac-10 through much of the last decade, the lasting impression was a truly dominant team that occasionally would trip over inferior opponents. Wins over Oklahoma, Auburn, Arkansas and Penn State were big, but USC fans might more vividly remember losses to California in 2003, UCLA in 2006, Stanford in 2007 and Oregon State in 2008.

Climbing the rankings and then seemingly overlooking opponents became something of a routine for USC. But each of those seasons mentioned ended in a Rose Bowl victory, something that became so expected that the invitation to the 2009 Granddaddy was met with slightly more than a ho-hum from many of the USC players.

It's impossible to tell what the results will be during USC's first season removed from a two-year, NCAA-imposed bowl ban. But it's safe to say there has been a culture change at USC.

While many programs talk about an "all about us" mentality or taking things one game at a time, only one has been forced to truly live it. It was difficult to imagine a team staying the course during a two-year bowl ban, and even tougher to envision a team peaking at the end of it. But the Trojans created something to play for and have positioned themselves as one of the top teams, if not the top team, in the country heading into the 2012 season.

Various media outlets have released preseason rankings with the Trojans coming in either at No. 1, 2 or 3 this spring, but you won't hear about that from this USC team. Preseason rankings and discussion of a potential national championship run likely would be characterized as distractions. And there are no distractions when it comes to USC football. It says so right on the field.

Ask any of the players about hype possibly derailing a promising season and you'll be greeted with little more than a wry smile.

"USC has always been like that," cornerback Anthony Brown said of the lofty expectations. "We're just getting back on that track, but everybody is focused right now, and we're just ready to go out there and get it."

Brown was a member of USC's 2010 class, which signed with the Trojans despite knowing that playing in a bowl game wouldn't be an option for two years. Wide receiver Robert Woods was the headliner of that class.

"We feel like each of those two years were humbling and just about getting our team together, learning how to handle ourselves," Woods said. "I think the team is holding up well. Guys know we're good, but we're keeping the team humble and focusing on the season. We finally get to play for something."

Conference opponents had no trouble doing what they could to take advantage of an obviously stumbling USC program during the first season and a half of Lane Kiffin's tenure. Mounting losses and a depleted roster forced the young Trojans to grow up quickly.

After such a strong close to the 2011 season, it's going to be difficult to find a hungrier team this season, as the Trojans will look to unleash two years of pent-up frustration in their search for their first bowl appearance since the 2009 season. But the ability to fall back on what kept them together last season -- what sets them apart and makes them unique -- is what could turn this into a special season.

"As a team we learned to play for each other," said freshman cornerback Ryan Henderson. "That gave us a lot of confidence as a team, that we could play for each other rather than just focus on trying to get to a big game."

Like Brown and Woods, tight end Randall Telfer was a member of that 2010 class and led the charge in keeping it together when Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks. He and fellow tight end Xavier Grimble combined for nine touchdown receptions last season and is a big reason this offense is expected to be potent again.

"Our team is very humble; Coach Kiffin emphasizes that a lot," Telfer said. "Whatever people say about us, the preconceived notions about next season, we just kind of throw them out the window and look to get better and work toward next season."

Telfer said team leaders such as Matt Barkley and T.J. McDonald have done a great job of keeping the focus on the team and improving every day, and added that the phrase, "They can't sanction the end zone," was used as a rallying cry.

"They told us we're just here to win games," Telfer said. "If we get to the Rose Bowl or national championship or whatever it may be, then it's just another plus."

Senior defensive end Wes Horton has seen a bit of everything during his USC career, including a Rose Bowl win, an Emerald Bowl victory and two years without a postseason. He said the idea of finally being able to emerge from the tunnel and into the light of a possible postseason game is just another reason to hold true to Kiffin's motto.

"It's about not having any distractions," Horton said. "It can be real easy to have the mindset of being the preseason No. 1 team in the country, but I don't think for one second the coaches or the leaders of this team are going to have that mindset that we are the best team in the country. We're going to into it with a clean slate, just like every other team, and take it one game at a time."

While many USC fans or those further outside the program might want to champion this spring as the rebirth of Trojans football, or an opportunity finally to turn the page on the cloudy years, USC is in a position to succeed largely because these players won't make those proclamations. To them, it's about staying the course and simply beginning Act III of this Lane Kiffin play. Only this time, the ending is up to them.

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.