Trojans Cach Lane Kiffin beaming before the start of Saturday's victory… (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / US Presswire )
It feels an awful lot like 2002.
That's the vibe USC Coach Lane Kiffin picked up on as his team finished a 10-2 season.
The 2002 Trojans featured a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Carson Palmer and an emerging star receiver in Mike Williams. Tailback Justin Fargas provided an aggressive midseason surge and the defense got progressively better as the season wore on.
The 2011 Trojans of quarterback Matt Barkley, receiver Marqise Lee, tailback Curtis McNeal and a young defense did the same.
"They're just really a special group that came together," Kiffin said Sunday, less than 24 hours after the Trojans' season-ending 50-0 victory over UCLA.
Because of NCAA sanctions, USC won't play in a bowl game, but the Trojans might be positioned to begin a run similar to the one that launched in 2002.
After capping that season with an Orange Bowl victory, USC won the 2003 Associated Press national title, the 2004 Bowl Championship Series title and advanced to the BCS title game after the 2005 season.
And the Trojans won those national championships without Palmer, who gave way to Matt Leinart after moving to the NFL after his final year of collegiate eligibility.
Barkley, of course, may not be back for his senior season.
"I'm going to definitely be in his ear until he decides," sophomore receiver Robert Woods said after Saturday's game.
"I haven't started yet," Lee added, "but I [will]."
USC on Sunday moved up one spot to No. 9 in the Associated Press media poll. The Trojans could climb higher as conference championship games and the bowl season unfold.
Regardless, the future looks bright for the Trojans despite three years of recruiting restrictions that start with the signing class of 2012.
Kiffin is already looking forward to next season — and he did not waste any time firing motivational shots to his players.
On Sunday, he said Woods — a Biletnikoff Award finalist and newly minted Pac-12 Conference record-holder for catches in a season — was only the second-best Trojans receiver.
Woods, who has nursed an ankle injury since last spring, and tailback Amir Carlisle are among players who will have surgery before spring practice.
The Trojans are expected to add five or six players in January and trim several upperclassmen from the roster. Senior cornerback T.J. Bryant, for example, is scheduled to graduate and will probably transfer to a Football Championship Subdivision school where he could play without sitting out, Kiffin said.
Because of sanctions, the Trojans can sign a maximum of 15 players in February and cannot have more than 75 scholarship players on the roster next season, 10 fewer than the NCAA standard.
Roster maneuvering is expected to continue through the spring and summer after players such as Barkley, offensive tackle Matt Kalil, safety T.J. McDonald and defensive end Nick Perry decide whether to turn pro or return for a final college season.
Coaches will be highly selective in offering scholarships and will expect contributions next season from many of the players who redshirted in 2011, Kiffin said. Restocking and strengthening the offensive and defensive lines will be a priority.
For each of his first two seasons, Kiffin was able to use the bowl ban to foster an us-against-them mentality. But he said Sunday that the Trojans went from "the most disliked program in America" to one that got "a lot of the country to fall in love with them."
Now, with the bowl ban over, and USC back in the top 10, he will spend the next few months coming up with new buttons to push.
In the meantime, the overriding priority is recruiting.
"Make sure that we're still putting a fence around California," Kiffin said of the Trojans' mission, "and dominating the recruiting trail."