Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
Following the conclusion of last year's 28-14 win against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Lane Kiffin vowed in front of a jam-packed media room that changes would be made following the Trojans' 8-5 season in 2010.
On Saturday, Kiffin's squad punctuated that one-year transformation with a 50-0 rout of the crosstown rival Bruins (despite playing with only three senior starters) to cap off a 10-win season. While in the coming weeks, uncertainty regarding four faces of the program (Matt Barkley, Matt Kalil, Nick Perry and T.J. McDonald) will arguably trump any sense of accomplishment, the Trojans achieved something in 2011 that few across the country could have ever dreamed possible.
In a year in which they had no conference championship or BCS Bowl trophies for which to play, USC rallied together to play for each other, for school pride, but maybe most importantly, for the future.
"We are coming out of the dark," Kiffin said regarding the mindset heading into 2012.
Although the headlines will read of a team who could potentially lose their Heisman hopeful quarterback (who broke Matt Leinart's Pac-12 single-season touchdown record) to the NFL Draft in April, if there is anything to take away from this 2011 season, it's that the Trojans' future is bright with or without No. 7 behind center. As Kiffin put it, "We are the best program in America. We're not about one person."
Thanks to the emergence of several underclassmen, from WRs Robert Woods (111 catches broke Keyshawn Johnson's Pac-12 single-season record) and Marqise Lee (73 catches, 1,143 yards and 11 TDs) to CB Nickell Robey (63 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs) to LBs Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard (who tied for a team-high with 81 tackles) and even PK Andre Heidari (15-for-17 on FGs and 50-for-50 on PATs), the ominous clouds that hovered above the program over the past two years are but a distant memory heading into 2012.
"The future is pretty bright here, regardless of who comes back and who leaves," said Lee. "We had a dominant season this year, so for those of us who will be here, we are going to come back next year ready to build upon the things we did this year. People thought we were just going to bow down based on the sanctions, but now they see we actually were ready to come out and play."
For a team that came into 2011 under the radar, 2012 will present a new challenge: How to take a 10-win season and use it as a stepping stone to a National Championship? It's a question just moments after their season finale against UCLA players were already clamoring to answer.
"This was a young team, a young great team," said Woods. "We went 10-2 with a young team and we have a lot to look forward to next year. We aren't going to slack off at all and are only going to get better. We just need to push even harder than we did this year."
(Photos by Jeff Gross/ Getty Images)