USC's Kristofer O'Dowd was an adequate center while starting seven games last year, but that's not good enough for a player widely regarded as the best in the nation at his position when the season began.
It was not unlike going 9-4 for USC. A majority of programs would celebrate a nine-win season. For the Trojans, it represents failure and inspires talk that one of college football's great dynasties is crumbling.
O'Dowd dislocated his right knee cap during fall camp and never seemed to fully recover. The Trojans just seemed dislocated from the swaggering, dominant program that had won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and two national championships.
"In those games I played, I wasn't playing to my capability," O'Dowd said. "What hurt the most was knowing I could play at a certain level and knowing what I could do but I wasn't getting there. That was the most frustrating thing ... [Because of his knee injury] I couldn't get the drive I was used to. I would just have the stalemate, which is acceptable at some places but it isn't acceptable for myself and the program here."
You could sort of substitute "USC" for "I" in that quote and get an accurate feel for the Trojans in 2009.
"What was our record? 9-4? That's a great year for other programs but is not acceptable for us," O'Dowd said.
O'Dowd, now the line's senior leader, is back this spring (though he missed some action after spraining his left knee) and so might be that swagger. It's no secret new coach Lane Kiffin and his staff have plenty of that. Kiffin and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron were two of the more boisterous presences during USC's best times working as assistants under former coach Pete Carroll.
"With this new coaching staff, they are teaching us the ways of what used to be -- the '03, '04, '05 seasons when USC was the team," O'Dowd said. "We're getting back there and it starts right now in spring."
O'Dowd picks his words carefully, but he admits something wasn't right last year, something about more than losing a bunch of starters to the NFL.
"It was full of a bunch of ups and downs," he said. "We didn't find that cohesiveness with one another on the team. I think that did affect us negatively last season."
The line around O'Dowd must replace three starters: tackle Charles Brown and guards Jeff Byers and Alex Parsons. As could be expected with USC, there's plenty of talent ready to step up -- no Pac-10 team's linemen pass the eye-test like the Trojans'. But they're unproven, and after last year, there is less justification to assume USC will automatically reload.
O'Dowd, however, seems to suspect the line, which underachieved last year, will be more than OK. It will again be a dominant crew.
He said the key is sophomore left tackle Matt Kalil, who made his first career start against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl, stepping in for academically ineligible right tackle Tyron Smith. Kalil is the younger brother of former USC All-American center Ryan Kalil, now an Pro Bowler for the Carolina Panthers.
"I think that left tackle position is going to be key," O'Dowd said. "Matt has shown great progress. He did at the end of the year starting against Boston College. He knows what he needs to do."
Something else could derail USC's return to the nation's elite: NCAA sanctions. A ruling from the infractions committee on alleged extra benefits provided by would-be sports agents to former USC running back Reggie Bush and other allegations is expected this month.
O'Dowd said possible sanctions are not a hot topic among the players.
"It doesn't get talked about," he said. "I've been hearing about it since I was a freshman. It's sort of like [the fifth wheel] who doesn't get invited. No one is really worried about it and I don't think it will have an effect for us at all."
What does have some effect is talk that USC is no longer the pre-eminent program in the conference as well as the nation. Yes, the Trojans do hear the negative chatter, O'Dowd said.
Still, O'Dowd knows he and his teammates, for the first time in years, now have something to prove.
"Of course it lights a fire beneath us, but in the same sense we did that to ourselves," he said. "It takes a man to go back and correct his faults."