LOS ANGELES -- The luster of winning its first conference championship since 2008 wore off for USC when it trailed wire-to-wire in a Cotton Bowl Classic loss to Ohio State. And the implications of that season-ending defeat set the scene for the No. 15-ranked Trojans' preparations for the 2018 campaign, which kicks off Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against UNLV.
"Last year, I think it was pretty obvious in the Ohio State game we were not as big and strong, as physical up front," said USC defensive end Porter Gustin. "We did have some injuries and a lot of young guys out there, which was part of the problem.
"But that being addressed fired us up and gave us that motivation to get bigger and stronger," he added.
Renewed focus on the weight room and diet dominated the Trojans' offseason. The Buckeyes' 24-7 victory served as a constant reminder, Gustin said.
And a change in approach did not end in workouts, instead taking on a systemic approach.
"We have high expectations for ourselves in our locker room," said linebacker Cameron Smith. "Our offseason's gone really well, and our culture has continued to grow in the right way, and our leadership's grown."
Talk of an improved culture typically enters the college football vernacular amid a coaching change; USC's Clay Helton heads into his third full season as head coach. His tenure -- which began as a mid-season replacement for Steve Sarkisian in 2015, includes two Pac-12 Championship Game appearances, a Pac-12 championship, and a Rose Bowl Game title.
Still, the Cotton Bowl Classic loss stings with a feeling reminiscent of the 2016 season-opening blowout defeat against Alabama. The defending champion Crimson Tide rolled 52-6 in a declarative statement the Trojans were not back to a national title-contending level.
"I wouldn't say it's a talent difference," Gustin said. "There were other things that came into play, whether that's a culture difference or discipline in the weight room. But I think we've addressed some of those issues and worked on them in the offseason."
UNLV comes to town ahead of a pair of marquee road games for the Trojans, Week 2 at Stanford and Week 3 at Texas. Facing the Rebels in Week 1 offers USC either an opportunity to apply those lofty cultural standards, in the process giving invaluable game experience to reserves, or risk falling into a fight similar to the Trojans' season-opening defeat of Western Michigan a season ago.
USC struggled against Western Michigan's multifaceted rushing attack, not able to put away the Broncos until late in the fourth quarter. Week 1 set a tone for 2017 in which the Trojans won five games by 10 points or fewer.
So, even with a conference championship in tow for the first time since the dynasty years of the 2000s, USC has plenty of improvements to make.
"As nice as winning a Rose Bowl was and Pac-12 title was, like I told our guys, let's don't pat ourselves on the butt until we win a national championship," Helton said. "That's the next step for us, is leaving no doubt."
Quarterback J.T. Daniels reclassified to the Class of 2018 to compete for the starting vacancy left by first-round draft pick Sam Darnold. The decision paid off: Coach Clay Helton named Daniels the Week 1 starter on Sunday. Daniels beat out Matt Fink and Jack Sears.
"I understand this is a huge responsibility and I need to work hard to be prepared to handle it," Daniels said in a statement. "It was a tight competition between all the quarterbacks throughout camp. We pushed each other every day."
Daniels becomes USC's first true freshman starter since Matt Barkley beat out Aaron Corp in 2009.
Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown arrived at USC with five-star recruiting billing, from a pipeline that has historically been good to the program at nearby Mater Dei. St. Brown earned praise coming out of training camp, and his integration into the lineup adds another dimension to a wide receiving corps returning promising 2017 contributors Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr.
USC won the only prior matchup in series history, 35-21, during the final season of legendary Trojans coach John Robinson's second stint in Los Angeles. Coincidentally, Robinson became UNLV's head coach two years later.