It doesn't matter what anyone says.
Until proven otherwise, USC is still USC.
When could that be proven otherwise? A lot of people thought it was going to be 2010. Sure, an 8-5 season isn't exactly USC-esque, but with everything the Trojans program was going through, it's a bit of a minor miracle they even emerged with a winning season.
The 2011 season could be a defining moment for the Men of Troy. Fourteen starters return for SC's last season of postseason ineligibility, and USC's ability to jump back into Pac-12 championship contention and BCS bowls in 2012 and beyond may rest on their shoulders.
After a warmup against woeful Big Ten doormat Minnesota, the Trojans host Utah for the first time in Pac-12 play. Following a visit from Syracuse, USC travels to Arizona State for what could be a real test before hosting Arizona prior to an off week.
That opening stretch of games for USC will be of prime importance, not just for 2011, but for the years that follow.
If SC can start the season 5-0 (or even 4-1), it will broadcast to the nation that 85 scholarships or 55 scholarships, the Trojans can and will still win football games. But the real concern is the future. Another down season could place USC in the position of being surpassed by other Pac-12 schools in the recruiting arena.
We're living in a crazy college football world where parity is becoming a reality. Gone are the days of USC, Notre Dame and Michigan being the end-all and be-all of the college football world.
Schools like Boise State, TCU, Michigan State, Oregon and Virginia Tech have just as much of a chance of landing that 5-star recruit as the traditional powers. If USC becomes a non-factor in the Pac-12 championship race, even for a short time, it can have serious repercussions for its future prospects of returning to glory.
Lane Kiffin and the Trojans know that, and the program has too much pride to allow USC to go quietly into the good night of college football anonymity.
USC will win four or five of its first five games, and will be rewarded with a Top 25 ranking, no matter how empty that gesture might seem to the outside world.
For the USC world, it will mean that USC is indeed still USC.