47F Sun Bowl, El Paso, TX
As September approached, Southern California was armed with high expectations, a Heisman-hopeful quarterback and a hunger to return to a BCS game.
Almost four months later, all that's left in a season-long trail of disappointment is one final chance to go out on a high note - even if it is against a team with a losing record.
After a two-year bowl hiatus due to NCAA sanctions caused by principals long gone, USC (7-5) makes its return to the postseason Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas, where it will take on Georgia Tech (6-7) in the Sun Bowl.
"Especially after two years of sitting at home and not being able to go to a bowl game, we're excited," coach Lane Kiffin said. "We're excited about a very good bowl and a great matchup, and we're ready to go to work."
While Southern Cal is no doubt happy to be taking the field in late December, playing in a mid-tiered bowl against a team that needed a special NCAA exemption to even be allowed to play in the postseason was not in the original plans.
With Matt Barkley back to lead a squad that was returning 19 starters and the high-profile transfer of Silas Redd from Penn State, the Trojans opened the year atop the AP poll intent on turning around a program tainted by the Reggie Bush scandal. Those high hopes hit a bump in the road with a 21-14 loss to Stanford in their third game of the season before totally coming apart following a 6-1 start.
"In a five-week span we went 1-4 ... and it was obviously a very depressing way to finish the season," Kiffin said.
Tough losses were compounded by significant injury. The Trojans lost a pair of back-to-back shootouts to Arizona and Oregon that saw them score 87 combined points, but give up 101. Then, after beating Arizona State and losing to UCLA, they held their own but came up short in the regular season finale against No. 1 Notre Dame - a game played without Barkley, who was sidelined by a sprained shoulder one week earlier.
Considered by many to be the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, the senior quarterback is expected to be back against the Yellow Jackets for a finale of his own.
"It didn't turn out the way I planned," Barkley said of his decision to return to school. "But I think over these last four years, and especially this year, I've learned so much. (I've) grown, matured a lot since last year I really think, and that will prepare me for the next level and for later in life. I don't regret it one bit."
For all of his struggles - Barkley threw a Pac-12-high 15 interceptions - he was still second in the country at 3.3 touchdown passes per game. In addition, he averaged just under 300 yards with a passer rating of 157.6, each good for second in the conference.
Having the nation's top receiver at his disposal went a long way toward that success.
Marqise Lee rewrote the league record book this season with an FBS-high 112 catches, 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to a unanimous All-America selection, Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors and the Biletnikoff Award. The sophomore combines with teammate Robert Woods as one of the most dangerous 1-2 punches in college football, providing a stark offensive contrast to their New Year's Eve opponent.
"Certainly offensively with their quarterback and their receivers and the skill they have .... it'll be a challenge for us," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
Tech comes off a 21-15 loss to No. 13 Florida State in the ACC title game, which it advanced to only because Miami imposed a bowl ban on itself in the hopes of lessening potential NCAA sanctions. Although they came up short, the Yellow Jackets - one of two FBS teams to run for over 4,000 yards this season - acquitted themselves nicely against the top-notch competition.
The talent level won't drop off much in their next game.
"When we found out that we were coming back to the Sun Bowl and we were going to be playing the Trojans of Southern Cal, I don't know what I did to become so lucky to get the University of Georgia, Florida State and Southern Cal all in a row," Johnson said.
It's a challenge he's lucky to have. The loss to the Seminoles dropped the team under .500, which would typically make a school ineligible for postseason play. However, it received a waiver from the NCAA because the losing record was due to a loss in a conference championship game. ACC rules prevented Tech from falling to a lesser bowl.
"We knew that the championship runner-up could not go past the Sun Bowl, and that was pretty much it," Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas said. "I don't think we ever had a discussion about moving down at all. ... We're very pleased to have them back."
The Yellow Jackets will be making their second straight postseason trip to El Paso, extending a streak to 16 consecutive seasons playing in a bowl. That run trails only Florida State (31), Florida (22) and Virginia Tech (20), but they hope to have more success this time around: Besides falling 30-27 to Utah a season ago in the same stadium, they have lost seven straight bowl games.
To break that slide, they'll no doubt have to ride their powerful ground game. Since Johnson joined the program in 2008, no FBS team has run for more yards, and his triple-option offense is as potent as it is diverse: Six players ran for more than 400 yards and three for more than 600, highlighted by Tevin Washington's 19 touchdowns.
Tasked with slowing down that spread attack will be Kiffin's father, Monte, who will be on the sidelines for his last game at USC. The conservative defensive schemes of the coaching legend were heavily criticized this season, particularly after the back-to-back losses to Arizona and Oregon in which his unit gave up more than 1,300 yards.
"Although things didn't always go as well as we would have liked this year from a defensive and win-loss standpoint ... I see great things ahead for the USC football program," Monte Kiffin said.
No stranger to defensive problems, Georgia Tech fired coordinator Al Groh in early October and wound up allowing just under 30.0 points per game, ranking 11th in the 12-team ACC and setting up the potential for a shootout at the Sun Bowl.