End of an era, start of another one

USC finishes up and starts over all at once on a first trip to San Diego's Holiday Bowl today against Nebraska in a game that matters going forward -- and looking back.

SAN DIEGO -- It doesn't seem like the end of anything here today. Really. With this young USC team and a first-year coach looking to the future, this Holiday Bowl matchup against Nebraska (5 p.m., ESPN) looks and feels more like the beginning of something.

Which is as it should be. It is.

And yet, sitting here in the press room at the Omni Hotel thumbing through Nebraska's Holiday Bowl media guide, there it is. The reminder. Sharing a page titled "University of Nebraska Administration" with the Chancellor Harvey Perlman is the glowing, and cringe-worthy, profile of the NCAA-infused wonderfulness of the Huskers Faculty Athletic Representative and law professor Josephine Potuto.

Of course no one at Nebraska meant this as an insult to USC. From coaches and players to fans, the Husker Nation has been unfailingly complimentary of a USC team they're thrilled at the chance to play. As one of their guys described it at Friday's USS Essex luncheon for the teams, USC is "an awesome program." As is Nebraska. Class almost all the way through.

But there it is. In all its fill-in-the-blank glory, a portrait of a woman who, with her Committee on Infractions cohorts, tried to do so much damage to so many completely innocent USC players and former players, alums, coaches, fans, family and friends -- and in the end, did it to the very NCAA she was purportedly serving.

The good news here is that this will never happen again. And also that it's not over -- off the field. Potuto will almost certainly get the chance to make her case one more time when Todd McNair's attorneys depose her. What did she know and when did she know it? Should be fun.

But as far as on the field, let it be over today. Let these USC players finish up five seasons the way they've handled themselves through all of this; with class and dedication and all-out commitment to the "Fight On" ideal.

Because nothing stands out more than how many Trojans stood up to answer the bell, day after day, one early-morning conditioning and weight session after another, through four coaches in three months last year, through two bowl-less seasons, through no appearances in the Pac-12 championship game through no fault of their own.

And yet here they were, showing up with smiles on their faces, clearly catching their new coach by surprise at their willingness to do so with their all-out love for playing this game. This game that some tried to take away from them, or at least much of the joy associated with it.

But no one could. Through no fault of their own, the record book might not be as kind as it could have been. And yet, since that June day in 2010, the Trojans have gone 43-21 in games where they've dressed as few as 44 originally recruited scholarship players and managed somehow to rack up a pair of 10-win seasons.

And that's what should be in the record books. Could any other program have done that? No one ever has. And now, they won't have to as a result of what happened to USC.

But when USC fans look back at the record book these past five seasons, they shouldn't so much see numbers but names. Look at the captains for that 2010 team. Matt Barkley, Stanley Havili, Michael Morgan, Malcolm Smith and Shareece Wright. Wonder what happened to those guys? Yep, the NFL happened and for a couple of them, a Super Bowl ring.

And then along came Rhett Ellison and T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey and Robert Woods and Devon Kennard and Marqise Lee and Marcus Martin and Hayes Pullard and Leonard Williams and Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor and Cody Kessler and on and on.

No way to shut them off or shut them out. And those are just for starters. Add the countless walkons who made the program viable and the assistant coaches and staffers who worked through the turmoil and you have a program to be proud of.

Which is how we see today playing out. It's about letting players play. Getting out of their way. Freeing them to do what they do. Trusting them to get it done. Playing with no fear. If the last five years couldn't take the Trojans down, not much should.

Which should be the basic approach going forward, something Steve Sarkisian seems to be not only figuring out but following through on in recent weeks. This is USC. Let it be -- especially now that it will fully be able to be USC.

Might as well start today although for those of you who care about such things, you can say it started the last game against Notre Dame, and another COI member who will remain nameless here despite her best efforts to give the Irish a competitive advantage over archrival USC.

How'd that work out?

Looking for more of the same today from USC against a Nebraska team the Trojans likewise respect for its exceptional talent at a number of key positions. And its own difficult circumstances playing for a staff on its way out as soon as the game is over.

"We've been there," the USC players have been saying all week.

No way to argue with that. These USC players have been just about everywhere these last few years. And look where they are today. With a chance to do something special. Again.

Despite it all, the Trojans seem to find ways to stand tall.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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