Barkley showed even more leadership by coming back for senior year.

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LOS ANGELES — The daunting wallpaper display in the office of USC sports publicist Tim Tessalone traces the football program’s history nicely.

Backgrounded in cardinal red, it replicates every Sports Illustrated cover with a Trojan on it.

It appears there are more to come.

The Troy Boys are back, back from a two-year NCAA bowl ban, back in the conversation for the national title, in what might be a redefinition of what can happen when a school gets hit hard by sanctions.

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“I think we’re part of a unique group,” tight end Xavier Grimble said recently on campus. “A lot of teams, after sanctions, kind of roll downhill. This is too great a place for that to happen.”

Who wins a national title the year it’s free of sanctions? It’s an improbable scenario, but possible here, due to a set of circumstances ranging from creative roster management to uncommon resolve to the zeal of a couple of seniors unwilling to see their college careers end early.

USC coach Lane Kiffin betrays little about the scholarship numbers game — USC is limited to 15 rides a year through 2014 and 75 overall — saying, “We’ve never discussed specifics of how we count people.” But the Trojans “back-signed” several players — putting them on the last year’s rolls when that option was available.

They came through the bowl-banned seasons with 8-5 and 10-2 records, and, said quarterback Matt Barkley, “You kind of saw it toward the end of last year, how much fun we were having playing together.”

There’s a belief here that the bad times helped forge a bond that made the Trojans stronger coming out of them. Offensive tackle Kevin Graf recalls the 2010 meeting at which Kiffin announced the sanctions, and the vow put forward by Barkley and defensive tackle Christian Tupou.

Said Graf, “I remember (them) getting up and saying, ‘This (the penalty) means a lot, but we’re still playing for each other. We’re still going to play as hard as we can.’ “

“Most people said, ‘Why are you guys playing? You guys are playing for nothing,’ ” said tailback Curtis McNeal. “We told ourselves, we are playing for something. We’re playing for our pride.”

The capper came last winter, when Barkley announced he was going to hang around for his senior year, continuing a trend in the Pac-12 that saw Washington’s Jake Locker and Stanford’s Andrew Luck stay for an additional year when they could have left.

“Right after we played UCLA (a 50-0 annihilation), I was on a pretty emotional high,” said Barkley. “I kind of thought for sure I was going to go to the NFL. Once that settled down and I started looking into it, I think I made the right judgment.”

But Barkley and All-America safety T.J. McDonald kept hanging around, which sent out some signals.

“He (Barkley) kept showing up to everything,” said McNeal. “There were guys who weren’t showing up to stuff. You knew who was leaving.”

The Trojans seem to have a lot of the requisite parts, with 17 starters back, plus both kickers. That includes a 1,005-yard rusher in McNeal; the best 1-2 punch in the country at receiver in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee (2,485 yards between them), and Barkley, with his 39-7 touchdown-interception ratio and 69 percent completion rate in 2011.

In recent days, they’ve had a major addition and a key loss. Silas Redd, a 1,241-yard back at Penn State, transferred in, but the Trojans lost defensive end Devon Kennard to a torn pectoral muscle, and that line is a spot where they’re thin.

On defense, the flaw in 2011 was slowing down passing games, which struck the Trojans for 263 yards a game.

“We’ll have less players than everybody else we play,” Kiffin said. “So we’ll have to manage that.”

They also have to tamp down expectations around the program. But after the past two years, that’s a welcome challenge.

“We have a goal in mind,” said McNeal. “Like Coach Kiffin says, it’s all about the prep, not the hype. We’re preparing to go all the way.”

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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