EL PASO, Texas — Well, it's finally here.
After spending two years in NCAA purgatory and watching other teams run, pass and frolic in late December and early January, USC has landed in a bowl game.
That it comes in a West Texas border town — not Miami, New Orleans, Pasadena or Phoenix — is something few imagined when USC opened the season ranked No. 1.
But today's game against Georgia Tech offers the Trojans a chance to finish their disappointing season with a victory, to close out a couple of eras and to perhaps bounce into 2013 with a little momentum.
The Trojans had more than a month to come to grips with their Sun Bowl reality. And, save for a couple of social-media miscues by players before and after their arrival in the city, the Trojans seemed upbeat.
"They kind of feel like a new team to me," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "They kind of have a spirit very similar to how they started the year."
Spirit is one thing, motivation another.
Just ask past Trojans teams.
Historically, USC's performances in lower-tier bowl games have been mostly dreadful.
Remember the 1992 Freedom Bowl loss to Fresno State? The 2001 Las Vegas Bowl debacle against Utah?
In the most recent of their two previous trips to the Sun Bowl, the Trojans ventured to El Paso in 1998 and were held to minus-23 yards rushing in a 28-19 loss to Texas Christian, a 16-point underdog.
Like that TCU team, Georgia Tech barely qualified for a bowl game. The Yellow Jackets' losses to Georgia in the regular-season finale and Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game left them with a 6-7 record and in need of an NCAA waiver to qualify despite a sub-.500 record.
So the Trojans are a touchdown favorite, even with injured senior quarterback Matt Barkley relegated to watching the final game of his record-setting career from the sideline.
Receiver Robert Woods also could be playing his last game with the Trojans. The school's all-time receptions leader said last week that he would announce after the game whether he will declare for the NFL draft or return to USC for a final season.
"I'd like to go out with a bang," he said, adding with a laugh, "if this is my last game."
The Sun Bowl definitely marks the last time Monte Kiffin will be making calls for the Trojans' defense. It's a back-to-the-future scenario for the 72-year-old assistant who coached in the 1969 Sun Bowl with Nebraska and last schemed against a triple-option offense in the 1970s.
"There's nothing you can show them that they haven't seen," he said of Georgia Tech, which utilizes a flexbone triple-option system that coach Paul Johnson has honed for nearly three decades. "If this was the first year they were doing this offense, I would feel a lot better about it."
Meantime, Lane Kiffin hopes that receiver Marqise Lee and tailback Curtis McNeal will be available.
Lee sat out most of Saturday's final practice after apparently suffering a knee injury during a drill. McNeal sat out most of the last two practices because of an undisclosed injury.
Quarterback Max Wittek, making only his second start, would benefit from having them on the field. The redshirt freshman performed well in a loss against top-ranked Notre Dame last month and has a chance to solidify his standing going into next season.
Wittek said the Trojans were motivated to play for a senior class that persevered through a coaching change and harsh sanctions.
"They stuck it out," he said. "They showed tremendous loyalty."
Senior safety T.J. McDonald is looking forward to his final opportunity.
"To be able to go out in style," he said, "would be great."