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In the grand scheme of things, USC failing to compete in the College Football Playoff after being one of the popular preseason picks to be one of the last four standing would suggest the 2017 season was an underwhelming season for the Men of Troy. Maybe those expectations were prematurely lofty for this program, but USC going to the bowl season as the Pac-12 champion proves the Trojans continue to be heading in the right direction as they look to build a foundation for sustained success in the conference.

USC’s performance in the Pac-12 championship game against Bryce Love and Stanford was a good blend of everything USC does well with a dash of what they can do wrong. Sam Darnold passed for 325 yards and two touchdowns in one of his better games of the season. Running back Ronald Jones had a big night on the ground, out-performing a banged-up Bryce Love with 140 yards and two touchdowns (Love’s performance was nothing short of admirable though, with 125 yards and a touchdown on a bum ankle). The defense gave up some plays along the way, but when the Trojans needed to buckle down and make a big stop, they came through with a terrific goal-line stand.

It was a game that offered a glimpse of what could have been if USC could have avoided some sluggish performances this season. At times, USC looked like a team worthy of being included in the College Football Playoff, but losses earlier in the year proved costly. Nobody is talking about USC in the crowded playoff picture this weekend because of the overall body of work. A handful of wins that lacked great performances (Western Michigan, Cal) and a loss to Washington State and a blowout loss at Notre Dame means USC played itself out of the playoff mix despite a strong finish to the regular season.

In some respects, it was a similar story as a year ago where USC ended the season on an encouraging winning streak. This year was different, however, because USC got to play for the conference championship instead of Colorado. The preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 came through on delivering that elusive goal. It is the first Pac-12 championship for USC in the championship game era for the conference.

Now, USC is heading to a New Years Six bowl. USC won’t be heading to the Rose Bowl, which will host a College Football Playoff semifinal this season. The Fiesta Bowl appears to be the most likely destination, where the Trojans could potentially be matched up with Penn State in a rematch of last year’s epic Rose Bowl. The possibility of an Arizona Rose Bowl also exists if the Fiesta Bowl ends up getting Ohio State as a Big Ten champion.

Whatever is next for USC, this season should be viewed as a step forward for the USC program, even if it ends outside of the playoff. With UCLA hoping to turn a corner with a splashy coaching hire in Chip Kelly, USC asserting itself as the kings of the Pac-12 comes at the best possible time.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to NBCSports.com's College Football Talk, Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Host of the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and iHeart Radio. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.