It was always the most fun of the football season a decade ago when you just never knew what USC team would show up for a bowl game.
But you always knew one thing. They would be better than the last time we'd seen them -- against UCLA or Notre Dame in the regular season finale. You just didn't know how much better.
It's why Pete Carroll & Co. were 6-1 in their BCS record, something no one will ever surpass. Or even come close to.
Ohio State is the only other program with six BCS wins but the Buckeyes lost four BCS games as well.
So while most teams were trying to figure out how to stay at the level of how they finished up, especially considering the time off and the long buildup to the bowl, the Trojans were somehow flying full-speed ahead. It was an amazing thing to watch up close even if we didn't know exactly how this was all happening.
But then neither did Iowa, Oklahoma, Penn State, Illinois or Michigan on a couple of occasions. Only Texas caught a break when USC ran out of defenders who could play and on a day when the Trojans should have scored 50 and won going away anyway, they gave away a couple of scores -- and a third straight national title. But you all know that story.
So how did it happen and how can it be replicated by this USC team going for its ninth straight win and 10th victory in the 2016-17 season? What happens now?
The good news in many ways is that there's no opponent or bowl determined yet. This isn't about that. It's about USC and the Trojan program. As it always has been, and always will be.
First there has to be the plan. Not just the game plan but the program plan. The bowl game run-up would be much more than that for these USC teams in that great run. Take the full three weeks and there's plenty of time to prepare for anybody -- and time to prepare for spring practice, which allows the same number of workouts as for the bowl. And time to prepare for the summer and next fall.
That's what good programs do. That's how you build -- your players and your confidence in what you're doing.
You do what this post-September USC program has done. You find your focus -- on fundamentals and technique and execution -- and you build trust and confidence in your ability to do that. But now you have to be able to expand the way your players access all of this as your young guys share the space with your outgoing group. That is, if you have the young guys with the talent and ability and they have the desire to do so.
USC seems to. The numbers of the next-level, next-to-step-up guys are larger than in a decade. USC didn't have to play them this season. And now they can.
We'll get around to the specifics in a bit. But the reward is one more big opportunity to go out a winner for the seniors and any NFL-bound underclassmen. Time for the young guys to step up and make this their team and their bowl even if they're still wearing their redshirts and/or those black Scout team jerseys.
This is where the handoff happens. The seniors say good-bye with one last leadership moment. The sophomores and juniors make this their team and the freshmen come aboard.
And the coaches get to coach -- in ways they can't during the season when you really cannot do anything but get ready for the next game. And for this USC program and these coaches, most of whom were not here for last year's changeover when a coaching staff, half of whom were let go, was just trying to keep its head above water -- something it didn't achieve.
But what a good learning experience and lesson for a young Clay Helton who'd maybe taken the wrong lessons from his previous interim Las Vegas bowl tenure two years earlier when a veteran Trojan team with fewer than 50 scholarship players was plenty ready to go out a winner for itself and for the departed Ed Orgeron against a Derek Carr-led Fresno State without the athletes to play USC. And could do so despite just six practices.
That approach didn't work last year when after a mere seven less-than-strenuous practices, with a diminished coaching staff in transition, was not the way to get ready for a physically tough, fundamentally sound Wisconsin. But even more so, that approach sent two wrong messages.
It said USC, a refreshed, healed-up from its bumps and bruises USC with the better athletes, could beat Wisconsin mostly by just showing up. No other way for the USC players to interpret it. Also it said that the bowl workout opportunity was merely for that one game and one game only.
Both of those were wrong. But that's what coaches the first time around do. They don't always get it right. If we're going to reference Pete here, his first bowl effort produced a 10-6 skunking by Utah in Las Vegas.
You just can't make the same mistake twice. And it doesn't look like USC will.
Clay told us Sunday that he has a three-week bowl game plan that will reference the way USC has been prepping the last two months with a five-days-a-week schedule for three weeks -- the schedule that has worked so well in October and November moves into December but with an expanded focus. It will be physically competitive and more, Clay says. And it will be about the next game -- and we have to believe, the next season, in that order.
But you can't get ahead of yourself here. What you do every day -- and what you believe in -- has to be what sustains a program for the long term.
That schedule also allows USC coaches to focus on recruiting and getting around the country this week. And maybe, while USC loses one grad student transfer in Max Browne, it can pick up another Stevie Tu'ikolovatu while they're at it. Not a bad talking point from Stevie's year here and with Noah Jefferson moving on, USC has at least as much opportunity for the next Stevie as at any program in the nation.
And it allows the young guys a chance to transition from practice players, at least conceptually, to contributors the way Michael Pittman and Jack Jones have been in a season when there hasn't been all that much room for first-year guys like Pie Young and Jamel Cook, Vavae Malepeai and Matt Fink, Trevon Sidney and Velus Jones, Cary Angeline and Nathan Smith, Frank Martin and Liam Jimmons, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Vaughns and C.J. Pollard and Michael Brown.
And we've not mentioned those who have gotten in a bit but whose upsides we have yet to see like Jordan Iosefa, Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku, Or redshirt freshman, again, who have yet to find their place like Ykili Ross, Kevin Scott, Clayton Johnston, Roy Hemsley and Cole Smith.
This is all their team now. And they have the next three weeks to show it. Because when it's bowl time, as much as you can't look ahead, you simply must.
The really special programs figure out exactly how to do that.
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