Season in limbo ends for USC Trojans

PASADENA -- USC's season ended Saturday much like it had during the Trojans' seven-year reign atop college football's elite -- with a double-digit win at the Rose Bowl. Of course, the victory took place a month earlier than the Trojans would have liked, in a sparsely attended, late-night game far less glamorous than "The Granddaddy of Them All."

USC's "meaningless season," in which it was ineligible to play in the postseason, finally came to an end as the Trojans checked another day, another game, another season off their four-year probation, which includes a two-year bowl ban.

Had USC been eligible to play in a bowl, the 8-5 Trojans, who finished third in the Pac-10, likely would have gone to the Alamo Bowl to play Nebraska. The game would have paid $3 million and given USC an extra three weeks of practice and a national showcase for its talents.

"It is very weird because we don't know this feeling of not having a bowl game to go to," coach Lane Kiffin said. "It's very weird because we're eligible for a bowl and can't go. We can't blame ourselves by not having enough wins so that's very different."

USC is left to go on an early vacation and continue paying the price for a player already in his fifth season in the NFL and certainly eligible to play a bowl at the end of his season. But even so, the Trojans' biggest meeting of the season will undoubtedly take place next month.

At the end of January, the NCAA will hold a hearing to listen to USC's appeal of the sanctions levied against it six months ago, after it was ruled Reggie Bush and his family received improper benefits while the running back was at USC.

After USC's 28-14 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Trojans athletic director Pat Haden walked onto the field and hugged nearly every senior on the team as they celebrated the win. As the Trojan Marching Band played, Haden smiled and shrugged his shoulders when asked about the appeals process.

"We don't know how it's going to turn out but we're going to put on the best appeal that we can and hope for the best after that," he said.

During the appeal, USC will try to prove the loss of 30 football scholarships over three years and a two-year postseason ban are overly harsh penalties for one ineligible player. As far as institutional control, the school will point to the hiring of Haden as its athletic director, Max Nikias as its new president and Dave Roberts as its vice president of what is now the largest compliance department in collegiate athletics.

Haden, a Rhodes Scholar and an attorney, and Roberts, who has argued cases before the California Supreme Court, have been working on the appeal since they moved into their offices at Heritage Hall in August. As much as they'd like to get next year's bowl ban removed, their first objective is to get some of their scholarships back.

"I think it's the scholarships by far," Haden said about his priority during the appeals process. "It's not even close."

USC coach Lane Kiffin has talked about how damaging the loss of 30 scholarship players over three years will be to the program. Getting half of those back would go a long way in USC's rebuilding process.

Saturday marked the sixth anniversary of Bush's first game as an ineligible player for USC. The NCAA findings released in June showed Bush began accepting improper benefits in December 2004 and when he stepped on the field at the Rose Bowl on Dec. 4 that year he was an ineligible player for the first time in his career.

Bush would be ineligible for USC's next 14 games.

This season USC played 13 games knowing the outcomes of each one ultimately wouldn't matter. Even an undefeated season wouldn't result in a conference or national title.

A one-year bowl ban, which would wipe out what would've been a 14-game season, seems like a just penalty for the games Bush played while ineligible, as does the loss of a few scholarships. But adding another 13 games along with 30 scholarships over three years seems like overkill.

The night before USC played UCLA, Kiffin talked to his players about the penalties they were forced to serve this season for actions that took place long before they were at USC.

"I told them 119 teams started the season in a different scenario than we did. We were the only one out of 120 [schools] that couldn't go to a bowl game," he said. "This is just one thing in your life that's going to happen. You're going to have much worse than a bowl game or a championship taken from you. It's going to make you stronger."

As good as this season may have been for some players, Kiffin hopes he won't have to give the same kind of speech next season when he addresses the team before its final game.

"We don't ever want to have this feeling again," Kiffin said. "This isn't what USC football is all about."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.