Steve Sarkisian promised when he was hired that USC would compete for championships.
The Trojans will have to wait until next year for another chance to make good on that declaration.
On Saturday, the Trojans are once again playing in a mid-level bowl game.
The Holiday Bowl matchup against Nebraska, though, is different from the Trojans’ last three postseason appearances.
In the 2009 Emerald Bowl, Pete Carroll was at the end of his Trojans tenure. In the 2012 Sun Bowl, Lane Kiffin was trying to hang on to his job. And last season, the Trojans rallied for offensive coordinator Clay Helton in memory of the good times they had under interim coach Ed Orgeron.
Sarkisian watched that victory from the press box, waiting for the chance to mold his new team.
So the Trojans have a sense of what Nebraska is going through in the aftermath of former coach Bo Pelini’s firing — and a subsequent team meeting during which he ripped Nebraska’s athletic director.
New Coach Mike Riley has monitored the Cornhuskers’ preparation under interim Coach Barney Cotton.
“The way they attacked this bowl preparation, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Cotton said of his players Friday. “They’ve been first class. They’ve been high energy.
“I hope we play that way.”
Sarkisian anticipates that Nebraska will.
“There is an understanding of, ‘Hey, these guys are going to play for, and with, one another,’” Sarkisian said recently. He said USC players “were in the same boat a year ago, so it can serve as a real rallying cry to bring the team together.”
USC is still feeling good three weeks after a rout of Notre Dame in the regular-season finale, a victory that improved the Trojans’ record to 8-4.
USC will be without nose tackle Antwaun Woods, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, but should otherwise be at full strength against a Cornhuskers team that is 9-3.
Nebraska features running back Ameer Abdullah and dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
The Trojans experienced varied success against running quarterbacks this season. They could not contain Boston College’s Tyler Murphy, but they did a fairly good job neutralizing UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams said the Trojans “have been focusing” on controlling Armstrong.
Nebraska ranks as one of college football’s best in team passing efficiency defense. That was achieved playing in the Big Ten Conference, so USC quarterback Cody Kessler and his receivers are not expected to be overwhelmed if the offensive line plays well.
As he did throughout the bowl run-up, Sarkisian on Friday wasted no opportunity to describe Nebraska as “the best football team we’ve played this year.”
Boston College, Arizona State, Utah and UCLA probably would disagree.
Win or lose, the outcome of Saturday’s game will not “say who we’re going to be next fall,” Sarkisian said.
“We’re going to be really good next year,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt about that.”
Check back during bowl season.