In 2011, the Trojans weren’t allowed to play in a real bowl game due to sanctions stemming from the improper benefits of Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo. However, that didn’t stop the media from coining several games as ‘USC’s Bowl Game’ throughout the year, thus putting a lot of pressure on the Trojans and supplying the team with valuable experience for 2012.
When the Trojans went into South Bend last October, they were underdogs by the biggest margin since the Paul Hackett era, and yet plenty of the Notre Dame media billed the game as SC’s bowl game. The Trojans went on to ultimately beat the Irish soundly in a superbly coached game by Lane Kiffin, but that didn’t stop the media from spinning the tires on the bowl talk again.
USC hosted Stanford for a bowl game the following week at the Coliseum, and three weeks later headed to Eugene for another bowl. It was a tired mantra, especially since it stemmed from the opposing media and fans in a attempt to not only hype the games the Trojans played, but put emphasis on the fact that USC was in theory playing for nothing.
Ultimately, it was that ‘playing for nothing’ feel that made the 2011 Trojans one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in USC history. It wasn’t their record nor their dominance, but their poise in overcoming adversity that resonated so much with observers.
If you would have told anyone before the season that Curtis McNeal would fumble in overtime against Stanford to end the game, fans would have been upset. Yet, there’s not a person alive that holds McNeal accountable for the loss to Stanford, much less anyone on the team.
And no, it’s not because the game didn’t mean anything to USC’s postseason agenda, but because the Trojans were winning at all they could win at, which was perseverance.
For a team that was theoretically playing in the shadows of sanctions, they played under the lights of two weeknight ESPN games, hosted College Gameday and had LeBron James and Dewayne Wade take in the Oregon game from sidelines, as special guests of Phil Knight.
For a team without a book to pen their tale, they forced us all to write their story.
When the season starts 10 weeks from now, much will be said about how the Trojans now have to deal with pressure due to the spotlight they’ve earned by being national contenders, but anyone who bats an eye in the vain of pressure just didn’t pay attention to the Trojans in 2011, as they overcame more in a ‘meaningless’ year, than most teams do in a decade.
They’ll be ready.