LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Southern California 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.

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Not once did they let it affect their effort, 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 only motivation.

A BCS bowl, possibly a national championship. That’s what the Trojans are aiming for this season.

And with the talent USC has, it isn’t some farfetched notion, one that every team has but may not realistically achieve.

The Trojans are legitimate national championship contenders. Not just in their eyes. Pretty much everyone’s.

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.”

It wasn’t easy.

USC was hit hard 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 entire athletic program on four years’ probation. It also took away 30 football scholarships over three years and vacated every victory in which Bush participated in from December 2004 through his Heisman Trophy-winning 2005 season.

The Heisman Trust decided to no longer recognize Bush as the winner of its award and the running back, now with the Miami Dolphins, recently returned his copy of the award.

USC appealed, claiming the sanctions were too severe. The NCAA denied it, but the process allowed Kiffin and his staff to stagger the penalties, which worked out — purposely — to their benefit.

Though the postseason ban went into effect right away, 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.

The ploy 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.

One key for USC early in the process was to keep the players it had.

Because of the sanctions, juniors and seniors were allowed to transfer from USC and not have sit out a season. The Trojans lost a few players and a couple of big recruits, but many of the big-name players, such as quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald, opted to stick it out.

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“To tell you the truth, we didn’t know we would be here today when we were dealt the sanctions,” Barkley said. “We heard that news 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 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 prematurely thin before the sanctions even hit, playing with as few as 50 scholarship players at times last season.

And now, with the scholarship sanctions in place, USC can’t afford to lose many players, particularly someone such as Barkley or receiver Robert Woods.

USC has already taken a couple of hits before the season began, losing defensive end DeVante Wilson to a torn ACL and fellow DE Devon Kennard until at least midseason with a torn pectoral muscle, so they certainly don’t need anymore.

“We don’t have very much of it,” Kiffin said of USC’s depth. “We’re just trying to do our best. We 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.

After some tough losses early in the 2010 season, USC won its final four games to finish 8-5 and was even better last season, going 10-2 to finish 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.”

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 made a surprising announcement that he was coming back for his senior season. Once 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 seven interceptions last season.

Game-breaking receiver Robert Woods is healthy after battling an ankle injury and Marqise Lee gives Barkley two dynamic targets. McNeal ran for more than 1,000 yards last season and the thin running back corps got a huge boost a couple of weeks ago with the addition of former Penn State star Silas Redd, who transferred and will be allowed to play right away in wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

McDonald also skipped out on a chance at the NFL, giving USC one of the best defensive backs in the country and an anchor for its defense.

Yes, the Trojans are thin. A few key injuries and the season could quickly get away from them.

This is still one impressive collection and talent, one that could make a run at a national title and be the starting point for the next era of Trojan dominance.

“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.”

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Coming out of those dark days, it is indeed starting to look bright again in Troy.