SAN FRANCISCO - There's no doubt that there is a different feeling to this year's bowl game than there was during USC's once-annual trip to the Rose Bowl.
But for better or for worse, USC has to make the most out of the Emerald Bowl. A loss to Boston College on Saturday would be a disaster end to what would likely be considered a disaster season by the Trojans' standards.
While players and coaches are saying the right things when it comes to the mental state of the team, it's on USC to show they care about this game as much as any other when the team takes the field at AT&T Park.
In fact, caring might not be enough. This is a chance for USC to make a strong statement about where the program's been and where things are headed.
And if the players need to care, the fans need to as well. Here's why:
One: Salvaging the season
Let's be honest. 9-4 sounds a hell of a lot better than 8-5. It's probably the difference between a good, but disappointing year, and a crappy one. And the only thing in between USC and that good season is 60 minutes in a park with dugouts and foul poles.
That's one of the issues in this game. Tuesday, Gary Cavalli, Executive Director of the Emerald Bowl, said he never expected USC to play in the Emerald Bowl.
Pete Carroll and the Trojans probably never expected it either. Now that they're here, they have to make lemonade. Or to put this in more festive, bowl-appropriate terms, when your season hands you Emerald nuts, make nutmeg or some other nut-based beverage.
Two: Back to the future
Carroll's no dummy. He knows this is a team in transition. The old guard is moving on, the final players with ties to a National Championship will be done playing after USC takes on Boston College (unless Jeff Byers' manages to get a 11th year of eligibility somehow. Seriously, it seems like he started out at USC blocking for Craig Fertig).
For guys like Matt Kalil, Brice Butler, and even to an extent, Allen Bradford, this will be their first taste of being cornerstones of the Trojans game plan.
And don't kid yourselves. This game will have an impact on everything from recruiting to spring practices. A lackluster showing and a loss will give everyone ammunition during recruiting battles, and it will add credence to the argument that the tide is turning in the Pac-10. However, a win means USC enters the offseason with momentum, with exciting young players to build around. A win means USC is back on track.
Three: Pride (in the name of Pete)
Pete Carroll doesn't lose games like this. He's had weeks to prepare for Boston College. He's had weeks to stew over losing to Arizona. He's had weeks to be ready for this challenge.
Something tells me he'll be on the top of his game on Saturday, and it's on the players to be at a high level right with him. There's no question that the team's confidence has been shaken over the course of this season. This is a chance to get some of that back.
A win would be great; a convincing win would be even better.
Either way, USC has to rediscover the confidence and pride of a championship-level team. If the Trojans don't, it's going to be a long offseason.
They know this, and that's why they care. You should too.