UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. – In judging the mood at Pac-12 media day, it's apparent that the USC Trojans are definitely back in terms of competing for conference titles and being a primary topic of discussion.
The Trojans were picked by the media to win the Pac-12 title -- USC got 102 of a possible 123 votes -- and the other member school's coaches and players gave plenty of respect to a school that has been absent from the bowl season for the past two years.
"USC has a very talented team," Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Lane (Kiffin) has done a great job. They've got Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Moody (Curtis) McNeal and a very underrated defense. The biggest challenge for them is probably the balance of the conference -- you gotta play every week or you have a chance to get beat."
Kiffin hears the praise -- and the thoughts of his team being atop many preseason national polls -- and said it doesn't mean a thing once the games start.
"All of that talk has nothing to do with how well we will play," Kiffin said. "But I do think it's exciting for our university and for our fans to be in those discussions again. We're two years removed from when the sanctions were handed down and people were saying SC is over."
It's hard to overstate how important the two-year bowl drought is to the mindset of the USC program heading into this highly anticipated season. Players and coaches who came to USC with championship aspirations were forced to sit on the sidelines, but the result is a hunger to get back in the chase when everything in the college football world is possible.
"I'm happy right now thinking of the possibilities," USC quarterback Matt Barkley said. "Just the fact that we have the opportunity to go to a bowl with the team we have is exciting. These guys are my best friends and you saw at the end of last year how much fun we were having playing together and playing for each other.
"I think we've got to keep playing like that this year. We can play for a national championship and bowl games, but we can't forget how we got here. We were playing for our buddies, as our coaches say, and I think especially this year we can't forget to do that."
The return of Barkley for his senior season is obviously a big part of the reason why the Trojans are facing such lofty expectations and his coach says that Barkley's return to school is a reflection on him as a person.
"There's no doubt that Matt was ready to be a top NFL draft pick and the face of a franchise," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "I didn't recruit him to come back, he came back because he wanted to do something special and that's why he has a chance to go down as the most historic Trojan ever."
All of that praise is nice, but Barkley said the final goal for this team lies ahead in what can be accomplished during the season.
While Barkley will be in charge of leading the offense, McDonald is just as important to the defense. He knows that in order for the Trojans to succeed this year, the defense will need to continue seeing the improvement it showed at the end of the 2011 season. McDonald thinks the unit is up for the task.
"For us, it's just making sure that we stay the course," McDonald said. "We've got a lot of momentum as a defensive unit. For many of us it's our third year in the system and everyone knows what is expected. That's what we've been focusing on during spring ball and it will carry us into summer camp. Plus we have a great offense to go against every day so that can only make us better."
After an offseason filled with so much hype and so much attention, the reality of the 2012 season is upon this USC team and a chance to go out and take care of that unfinished business that has become such a catch phrase around the program.
"To tell you the truth, we didn't know we would be here today when we were dealt the sanctions," Barkley said. "For me, there was never any thought of leaving USC at the time, I think it's clear how much I love this school and I wasn't going to give it up just for two games we couldn't play in.
"What I didn't anticipate was how the sanctions would bring our team together and make us stronger in character. It allowed us to face adversity in a unique way that guys our age aren't really used to. It seemed all bad at first but ultimately I think it worked in our favor to get us to the point we're at today."