It’s amazing what having something to play for can do to a team.
In any sport, having the stakes raised can awaken a fire inside even the biggest underdogs, occasionally producing magical — and often unbelievable — results.
Take the 2011 Virginia Commonwealth Rams, who, as No. 11 seed, stormed their way to the men’s basketball NCAA Final Four.
Or the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks, who entered the playoffs with the worst record in NFL history but overwhelmed the then-reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints to advance to the NFC Championship game (producing a seismic event underneath their stadium in the process).
It’s even happened right here at USC, when the 2008-2009 Trojans ran the table to win their first-ever men’s basketball Pac-10 title and secure a trip to the NCAA tournament, despite being heavy underdogs with little hopes of playing in the postseason.
But this motivation — in terms of a tangible, immediate payoff — is something the current USC football team has been devoid of in the last two seasons. For as much as having something to play for can help, the absence of such a stimulus can hurt a team immensely.
Whether or not anyone on the current team will admit it, playing without the chance to make a bowl game is extremely disheartening.
But fortunately for the Trojans, the environment they play in has given them an alternative reason for hope.
Built into the make-up of college football is the separate goal of long-term progression, which isn’t found in professional sports today. Because they cannot trade for players to make an immediate impact, colleges rely on the recruitment and development of their athletes — a process that often takes two to three years.
It’s because of this that college coaches and fans alike have an added patience for development.
A top-10 recruiting class for the next season holds almost enough promise to assuage the disappointment of the current season’s failures, as those rooting for the team know it is only a matter of time before new acquisitions produce results for a number of seasons.
USC’s situation really isn’t that dire.
In fact, at 4-1 and 2-1 in the Pac-12, the team is currently about as good as it could be given its sanctions.
The Trojans don’t need to label this as a rebuilding year, but rather as one that reaffirms the program’s membership in the upper echelon of college football.
To add to it, USC has one of the youngest teams in the country, with the number of underclassmen starters hovering in the double-digits during any given week.
Having a younger team makes it much easier to keep an eye on the future, as new recruits will end up alongside many current Trojans.
The need for success down the stretch is as high as ever for USC.
But there shouldn’t be much motivation lost either, as the potential future gains haven’t changed one bit.
Finishing first in the Pac-12 South, despite a 3-0 conference record from Arizona State — which holds the tiebreaker over USC — will help silence the myriad critics that continue to write off USC since the NCAA brought down the hammer last summer.
It will prevent allowing yet another team from knocking the Trojans down a peg in the same way Stanford and Oregon were able to do during the past two years.
But most importantly, it will prove to recruits across the country that their futures are by no means going to be jeopardized by committing to USC.
Calling each of USC’s tough matchups its “bowl game” has been one of the most grossly overused and irrelevant statements to come out since the sanctions.
But at least finishing strong down the stretch will give the Trojans something to brag about and will serve the same purpose as a “bowl-game win” in terms of some much-needed national credibility.
There isn’t a great way to digest not being able to even try for a national championship or Rose Bowl appearance on New Year’s Day.
Understanding the remaining implications of this season — ones that are arguably more important than a bowl game appearance anyway — should be enough to rekindle a fire under the Trojans as the season rolls on.
“One-Two Punch” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email James at firstname.lastname@example.org.