A season that began with so much promise for Southern California will end Monday in a place few would have expected to see the Trojans this bowl season.
USC started the season No. 1 in the country with a quarterback favored to win the Heisman Trophy. Losses to Stanford and Oregon took the Trojans out of the national title picture, and losses to Arizona, rival UCLA and then finally to Notre Dame sent them tumbling to second-tier bowl status.
Instead of the BCS, the Trojans (7-5) will face Georgia Tech (6-7) in Sun Bowl. Both teams are unranked and riding two-game losing streaks, and USC will be without injured quarterback Matt Barkley (shoulder).
The Trojans admit they had much greater expectations for themselves, but they also are happy to be in a bowl game after a two-year ban and will try to salvage a season that slipped through their fingers after a 6-1 start.
"We wanted to be in a better bowl game, and that's typical, but we decided our own fate and this is where we're at," All-American receiver Marqise Lee said. "Things happen to the greatest teams out there. Sometimes situations happened where there's struggles, and that's what we had. So now we're here, just ready to play and focused - enjoying practice and enjoying our days here, and we'll be ready to play on Monday."
Barkley, the first three-time captain in team history, injured his right shoulder injury in the loss to UCLA. It was announced Thursday that Barkley was not cleared to play in the Sun Bowl. He put together one of the greatest careers in USC history and is expected to be one of the first quarterback drafted by the NFL in April.
It certainly is not the season Barkley envisioned when he decided to return for his senior season and put off the NFL.
"I wouldn't say tough. It's not like you really have an example to look to as how to handle it with all the success teams in the past have had at this school," Barkley said. "It's been definitely a learning lesson, not something I could have imagined, but then again nothing is guaranteed.
"When you strive for something, there are times when you're going to be disappointed. Knowing we were shooting for a very high goal . it just happens that way sometimes. But it doesn't take away from the fact of the experiences I've had."
Barkley's injury means that redshirt freshman Max Wittek will get his second start. The first was the 22-13 loss to Notre Dame in which he was 14 of 23 passing for 186 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
"We're fortunate it isn't the first time we've had to (play without Barkley)," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We did it a lot of games last season. The team is very comfortable with Max. It's not like all of a sudden we made him the starter."
Lee gave Wittek a ringing endorsement.
"Based off that Notre Dame game, we had little situations here and there, but then again you know what your quarterback is capable of. Max threw two picks, but then again in the huddle he was still pumping us up," Lee said. "From a young quarterback, you don't expect that. So to see that from a freshman, willing to push us, the vets, and get us there and ready to go is amazing. So I'm not worried about him at all. Monday, he'll go out there and do what he's supposed to do. He looks great. He didn't have much time to practice for Notre Dame, but now he'll be on point."
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said he doesn't expect USC to change much offensively with Wittek.
"Surely he's an excellent player," Johnson said of Barkley, "but I think the young man that played in his place is also very talented. We only had the one game to break it down, but you can see he's got good feet, a very strong arm and he's very capable. I doubt they're going to change what they do."
And neither will Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets, with their triple-option offense, are fourth in the nation in rushing, averaging 323 yards per game. Quarterback Tevin Washington has run for 19 touchdowns.
"It's very difficult (to prepare for)," Kiffin said of Tech's offense. "Luckily, we had a month to prepare for it. I don't know how people do it in a week. It took us a week to get the (scout) team to play them. It's different. In a weird way, it's like playing Oregon. There are not a lot of plays being run, but they're so good at it."
The Yellow Jackets have to prepare for a USC offense that features two of the best receivers in the nation in Lee and junior Robert Woods, who is expected to make a decision after the game regarding whether or not he plans to enter the NFL draft. Woods is USC's all-time receptions leader, while Lee won the Biletnikoff Award and finished fourth in this year's Heisman voting.
"The two wide receivers are so talented," Johnson said. "They've got a good offensive line, an adequate running game. They're just very talented all up and down at every position."
Lane Kiffin added, "Obviously very disappointing day, coming down to turning the ball over and third-down efficiency really nullifying anything on offense. I thought our defense did a good job today. I thought they played very hard, obviously wore down a bit there late, but that's to be expected when we turn the ball over that many times. One touchdown is basically on a punt return. Both teams were in the red zone three times, they score 21 points, we score seven. Very surprising game, I thought we would play much better on offense today. I thought we did two good weeks of practice, I thought guys were really into it, I thought our defense, for a cold windy day like that, really came out and played very physical on turf and the story line really came down to our inefficiency on offense and obviously that starts with the head coach."
Johnson siad, "We thank the City of El Paso and the Sun Bowl committee for this fabulous week. The second time around was probably better than the first. The hospitality and everything shown to our team, coaching staff and extended family was great. I am really proud of our football team and the way they played today. They played with a lot of heart and I know Southern California has some really good football players. It was a hard fought football game and I am really proud of our team and I thought they played well."