The USC Trojans opened the college football season at No. 1 in the polls—just ahead of defending national champion Alabama—and shouldering expectations of a return to glory after tough NCAA sanctions.
The hype culminated in a thoroughly disappointing 7-5 campaign, a tumultuous year that saw quarterback Matt Barkley's Heisman chances derailed by injury and ineffectiveness, and a defense that simply couldn't hold up its end of the bargain.
The season ended with a mostly listless 22-13 loss to No. 1 Notre Dame, a team that outclassed USC and held on to the spot that the Trojans opened with. It was a humbling defeat, the second in a row after an embarrassing 10-point loss to rival UCLA.
But through it all, through the failed expectations and the off-field chaos, the Trojans can look back on 2012 and realize that there are plenty of positives to take away from the year and carry into 2013.
1. The offense is in good hands under center.
Max Wittek wasn't spectacular in his debut as a starting quarterback, but he wasn't terrible either. Yes, he threw two interceptions and the USC offense was stuck in neutral for most of the game against Notre Dame, but he showed flashes and provided hope for the future.
Remember: Wittek may be an inexperienced freshman, but he's still a USC quarterback. Regardless of what you think about the recruiting abilities of Lane Kiffin, that counts for something. USC doesn't put stiffs under center. Wittek has plenty of talent around him and will succeed in red and gold. He probably won't be as good as Matt Barkley, but he'll be good enough for the Trojans to have a bounce-back season.
2. Marqise Lee is an absolute stud.
Robert Woods was the man in 2011, and he had a great year in 2012. But nothing he did compared to the general excellence of his partner in crime on the outside, Marqise Lee. Lee was named conference player of the year after a 112-catch, 1,680-yard, 14-touchdown season that placed him squarely in the spotlight for the Heisman Trophy.
Lee is only a sophomore, so he'll probably be staying around for another year. As long as he's an option for Wittek, the Trojans will be fine on offense. Lee is a special talent.
3. The defense has a lot to build on.
USC's defense was mediocre in 2012, ranking 46th in the nation in points allowed per game. But there's still a lot to be happy about. In games against California, Stanford, Washington and Notre Dame, the defense kept USC in the game while the offense struggled.
Of course, they still gave up 61 points to Oregon (although there's almost no shame in that) and had no chance against UCLA. There's a lot to like and a lot to hate, but the defense is looking up for 2013.
4. It is still USC football.
It doesn't matter who's coaching. It doesn't matter what happened the prior season. It doesn't matter what the fans think or how the NCAA chooses to punish the program. USC football endures because of the colors, logo, and tradition that has made it one of the premier football programs in the nation for years.
The 7-5 record will sting for a while. But USC will realize the expectations were probably too high to begin with, and a young team will be a year older in 2013. The experiences they had in 2012 will allow them to learn and grow. The Trojans will be improved next season, and there will be a new crop of eager recruits ready to add their names to rich history of USC football.