No bowl but plenty for USC to play for

PASADENA, Calif. -- In a way, this USC football season seems like a colossal waste of time.

The 71 Trojans still left under scholarship, plus the walk-ons, the pedigreed coaching staff, the trainers, the graduate assistants and the student managers will all begin grueling summer practices next week with the inspirational goal of ... waiting for the NCAA to rule on an appeal?

Other than that Dec. 4 game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, the Trojans are playing this season without a carrot. There will be no trips to Disneyland -- or Alcatraz, as was the case for last year's Emerald Bowl -- because the Trojans start their two-year bowl ban for violating NCAA rules. That means the best thing this team can do is run the table through its 13-game schedule and let people linger over that for a while before they click on the bowl games.

And yet 2010 is among the most critical tests this program has ever faced. Fail it and USC football could become irrelevant for a decade or more. In other words, it could be the '90s all over again, and nobody at USC wants to see that.

Don't think first-year coach Lane Kiffin hasn't thought about the ramifications of the next five months. In the last two weeks, he has watched as a new school president and a new athletic director have begun rearranging the furniture, and the culture, at Heritage Hall. One compliance misstep or one mediocre season could be all president Max Nikias or athletic director Pat Haden needs to "go in a new direction," as the euphemism goes.

"It is very crucial. We'd love to get off to a great start, to what I'm kind of considering our new start," Kiffin said. "It would be great, because of that perception that's out there, that SC's going to crumble."

The return of Haden, J.K. McKay and new offensive coordinator Kennedy Pola -- all of whom were involved with USC football in happier times -- was the first step in filling the crater left by Pete Carroll's departure and the NCAA's painful -- but far from swift -- ruling. Now, it's up to Kiffin and his staff to convince the players there's something to play for and the nation there's something worth seeing at the Coliseum this fall.

"They'd expect people to be running from SC, not SC coming back to SC," Kiffin said. "I think that was a powerful message. Now, we need to go back on the field and continue that message by winning games."

After this season, USC has to make every scholarship count, since it can offer only 15 per season for the next three seasons. The last thing the Trojans can afford is for recruits to think the program is eroding, especially after last season's 9-4 clunker. USC still can offer recruits a ladder to the NFL, but that won't be there long if mediocre season builds on mediocre season.

It didn't take USC long to go from the darling of the casual college football fan to an object of derision. According to sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, the team has adopted an "us-against-the-world" mentality. He senses a lot of people rooting for USC to fail. Some of those people didn't know Barkley's name last year, but most people realize there's a cloud hanging over this team. Some of them are rooting for rain.

"I think we'll definitely be more closely watched -- like, what are they going to do? -- because of the sanctions," Barkley said.

Every time a USC player transfers -- and six have left so far -- some people will view it as another rat, the same sinking ship. For now, Kiffin has managed to keep the thing afloat. The people who showed up for Thursday's Pac-10 media day picked the Trojans to finish second in the conference, a finish Kiffin considered charitable.

Not a single starter has transferred yet. The players who left generally have admitted they are seeking more playing time, not a shot at a bowl game. If anything, they're exploiting a loophole for personal reasons. Kiffin accused the NCAA of creating "free agency in college football, without a salary cap."

He also admits he's worried that more defections could be coming. It's lucky for Kiffin and his assistants that they're deep in NFL experience, because this team soon could have about the same numbers as a pro squad, 53. Juniors and seniors have all of training camp to transfer, since there's no cutoff date other than the enrollment date of the school they would attend.

"I have a big concern with that," Kiffin said. "All of a sudden, you get after a player two weeks into camp and he says, 'You know what? I'm leaving, because School A, B and C are after me.'"

Barring something weird, the Trojans shouldn't have much trouble running over Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Washington State to start out 4-0, but things stiffen right about there, with a home game against improving Washington and a trip to play at Stanford. By the time they get through Cal and Oregon in October, they'll know exactly who they are. So will the rest of the country. Anything short of dominance will leave the impression that this team is ripe for the taking.

In other words, the Trojans have to think in terms of clean lines.

"If we leave no doubt, win every game, it's no competition, it should be a good thing for us," Barkley said.

And if not?

Maybe he doesn't want to know.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.