NCAA didn't take away USC's swagger

HONOLULU -- In the last three months, we've learned a few things about what the NCAA can and can't do to USC.

It can void the most memorable victories in a generation. It can snap its fingers and make 30 scholarships disappear. It can ban the Trojans from bowl games. By forcing them to erase Reggie Bush's records, it can even deny them treasured memories.

But it can't touch this program's confidence, or at least the outward signs of it. USC's swagger could work like armor -- or it could be exposed as a flaky veneer -- as this team embarks on the 2010 season Thursday evening at Hawaii.

USC has a heavy task to maintain the faith of its many fans. Remember, not all of them are there through thick and thin. The easiest way to maintain the momentum Pete Carroll built up, of course, is by rolling through a perfect season, the first in six years. Is it unlikely? Of course. Is it possible? Just look at its schedule.

So far, there have been no visible cracks in the Trojans' self-belief, but it's hard to tell if it's false bravado. Within hours of the release of sanctions, then-athletic director Mike Garrett told a group of supporters in San Francisco, "there was nothing but a lot of envy, and they wish they all were Trojans."

Fall camp had the feel of a reform school under lockdown, only the students were the ones being protected from corrupting outsiders. The university severely limited access to its practices. Everybody who walked through the gates had to have a purpose, not to mention a wristband. No Snoop Dogg sightings. No Will Ferrell gags.

Coach Lane Kiffin virtually eliminated tackling from practice, worried about the team's depth after a rash of transfers spurred by the sanctions.

The psychological effects of the NCAA spanking were a bit harder to find. If anything, the us-against-the-world thing seems to be a little easier to sell when you actually do have some handicaps. For decades, USC was the program every other program envied. Garrett was right in that respect. It had everything a recruit could want: location, star power, tradition and relatively easy access to the NFL.

After everything USC has gone through in this summer of bummer news, here's what the Trojans' avowed goal is for 2010: perfection. Sound any different than in the Pete Carroll era? No, but does it still ring true, even to the guys talking about it?

It seems to, and there is some method to their mindset. If USC can avoid a major upset Thursday at Aloha Stadium, it easily could start rolling through a soft opening stretch and have a 4-0 record heading into the Oct. 2 game against Washington at the Coliseum. That's a test, but a winnable one. From there, the Trojans could start climbing from their No. 14 spot in The Associated Press rankings, gaining more and more national attention as they go.

If -- and yes, it's a big "if" -- the Trojans manage to win all their games (and most of the tough ones are in the Coliseum this year) they could finish No. 1 in the AP poll. That's the Holy Grail of 2010.

Don't you think this team would love to go 13-0 and muddy all the talk involving the BCS contenders? That record, by the way, has already been mentioned more than once in interviews this summer.

"We don't talk about it a whole lot out here, but it is a personal goal of all ours," quarterback Matt Barkley said. "We're not going to shout it out loud and make a bunch of predictions and guarantees and [tick] off everyone, but it is a goal of ours and that's what we're working towards."

Players, of course, will tend to think grandly. Guys who don't believe in themselves don't usually end up with Division I scholarships. But this stuff is coming from the top, too. Kiffin has toned down his rhetoric from the Tennessee days, but he's not exactly kicking at the dirt and saying, "Gee shucks, we just hope we don't get embarrassed."

"Nothing's changed as far as our standards," Kiffin said. "We expect to operate at a championship level. We expect our players to be All-Americans. We expect to win every game that we play."

You hear comments like those and you start to think these guys might have a pretty good team, or at least they think they do. But really, what have they done? The veterans on the team are coming off a 9-4 Emerald Bowl season. The freshmen haven't dealt with the intensity of a stadium with multiple decks, the ESPN cameras and the speed of big-time college football.

Plus, these guys are thinner than dental floss in some areas and couldn't tackle themselves this spring (though, in fairness, they weren't allowed to).

So under the lights near Pearl Harbor, with the tropical breezes blowing, the Trojans begin answering questions that have been building all summer like the clouds that roll through the mountains here. And yeah, the most important of those questions are the ones deep inside each and every one of the players and coaches on the field.

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com