LOS ANGELES The USC Trojans spent the last two seasons with no reward in sight for their hard work, a bowl bid the carrot at the end of the season for everyone except them.
Not once did they let it affect the way they played on the field.
The reason? Simple, really.
"We're USC," senior running back Curtis McNeal said. "No matter if you can't play in a bowl game, we're still USC. We're always going for the victory no matter what the outcome will be."
The possibilities have expanded this season.
Pride is no longer the motivation; the Trojans seek a national championship.
The Trojans are legitimate contenders. And not just in their eyes.
Bounce back? USC wants to prove it never really left.
"They were really hurt by those sanctions, weren't they?" Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said facetiously. "But, really, they did a great job of holding it together."
USC was punished by the NCAA after a four-year report revealed numerous improper benefits involving running back Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo.
Citing USC for a lack of institutional control, the NCAA declared Bush ineligible, dating to the Trojans' 2004 national championship game, and put the athletic program on four years' probation. It also took away 30 football scholarships over three years and vacated every victory in which Bush participated from December 2004 through his Heisman Trophy-winning 2005 season.
USC appealed, claiming the sanctions were too severe. The NCAA denied it, but the process allowed coach Lane Kiffin and his staff to stagger the penalties, benefiting them.
Though the postseason ban took effect immediately, the scholarship reductions didn't start until after the appeal was denied last year. The gap allowed Kiffin and his coaches to tell new recruits that while they would have to wait out the two-year postseason ban, they would still be able to play for a bowl or even a national championship before they left school.
The strategy worked; Kiffin's latest recruiting class was rated among the top 10 in the country by numerous services.
"It doesn't matter if you have 25 players, if they're the right players," Rodriguez said.
Many stars decide to stay
The first order of business for USC was keeping the players it had.
Because of the sanctions, juniors and seniors were allowed to transfer without sitting out a season. The Trojans lost a few players and two big recruits, but many of the big-name players, such as quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald, opted to stick it out.
"We heard that news," Barkley said, "and there was never any thought of leaving, never any thought of going anywhere else, never any thought of doing anything other than standing up and facing the giant, in a sense."
They'll face it with far fewer numbers.
Though the scholarship reductions didn't take effect until after the appeal was heard, Kiffin and his staff prepared the team for what was to come, redshirting some players and bringing in others midyear so their scholarships would count against the previous recruiting class.
It was a crafty move by Kiffin, but it left the Trojans thin before the sanctions even hit, playing with as few as 50 scholarship players at times last season.
Trojans have little depth
And now, with the scholarship sanctions in place, USC can't afford to lose key players, particularly someone such as Barkley or wide receiver Robert Woods.
USC already has taken two hits before the season begins, losing defensive end DeVante Wilson to a torn ACL and fellow defensive end Devon Kennard until at least midseason with a torn pectoral muscle.
"We don't have very much (depth)," Kiffin said. "We're just trying to do our best. We've just got to find a way to maximize every situation we're in and find a way to get a play here and a play there out of however many guys that we can."
USC has been pretty good at maximizing so far.
Despite no hope of playing in the postseason, the Trojans banded together the past two seasons, playing with a don't-forget-about-us edge.
USC finished 8-5 in 2010 and was even better last season, going 10-2 and finishing sixth in the final Associated Press poll.
"We just kept our heads down and kept trying to win games," McNeal said.
And they're ready to win more this season.
"The stuff that happened made these kids, whether it was first-round draft choices last year, Matt Khalil and Nick Perry, or the guys still here, it made them better," Kiffin said. "Having a lot of that stuff taken away from them is a valuable life lesson."
Most starters return
USC has most of its starters back, and many of them are among the best in the country at their positions.
Despite being projected as a high NFL draft pick, Barkley returned for his senior season. Criticized for making poor decisions as a freshman, he's one of the most complete quarterbacks in college football and a Heisman Trophy front-runner after throwing for more than 3,500 yards and a school-record 39 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last season.
Woods, a game-breaking receiver, is healthy after battling an ankle injury, and Marqise Lee gives Barkley another dynamic target.
McNeal ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, and the thin running back corps got a huge boost two weeks ago with the addition of former Penn State star Silas Redd, who transferred and will be allowed to play immediately in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
McDonald also skipped a chance at the NFL, giving USC one of the best defensive backs in the country and an anchor for its defense.
"I think at USC, right now we kind of feel like we're in a perfect storm with so many good things going," Kiffin said. "We feel good about our current team and about our future teams for years to come."