Updated Monday, December 31, 2012 at 12:31 AM
EL PASO, Texas — A season that began with so much promise for USC will end Monday in a place few would have expected to see the Trojans this bowl season.
USC was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll in August. Losses to Stanford and Arizona took the Trojans out of the national-title picture, and losses to Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame sent them tumbling to second-tier bowl status.
Instead of reaching a Bowl Championship Series event, the Trojans (7-5) will face Georgia Tech (6-7) in a Sun Bowl matchup of unranked teams. USC will be without quarterback Matt Barkley, who suffered a shoulder injury against UCLA.
The Trojans admit they had much greater expectations for themselves, but they also are happy to be in a bowl game after a two-year ban because of NCAA violations and will try to salvage a season that slipped through their fingers after a 6-1 start.
"We wanted to be in a better bowl game, and that's typical, but we decided our own fate and this is where we're at," said All-America receiver Marqise Lee, who was held out of Saturday's final practice for the game after apparently injuring his left knee during a drill. "Things happen to the greatest teams out there. Sometimes situations happen where there's struggles, and that's what we had."
It certainly is not the season Barkley envisioned when he decided to return for his senior season and put off the NFL.
"I wouldn't say tough. It's not like you really have an example to look to as how to handle it, with all the success teams in the past have had at this school," Barkley said. "It's been definitely a learning lesson, not something I could have imagined, but then again nothing is guaranteed. When you strive for something, there are times when you're going to be disappointed."
Barkley's injury means redshirt freshman Max Wittek will get his second start. The first was a 22-13 loss to No. 1 Notre Dame in which he was 14 of 23 passing for 186 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
"We're fortunate it isn't the first time we've had to (play without Barkley)," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We did it a lot of games last season. The team is very comfortable with Max."
Lee endorses Wittek.
"Max threw two picks (against Notre Dame), but then again in the huddle he was still pumping us up," Lee said. "From a young quarterback, you don't expect that."
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said he doesn't expect USC to change much offensively with Wittek.
"Surely he's an excellent player," Johnson said of Barkley, "but I think the young man that played in his place is also very talented."
Georgia Tech, with its triple-option offense, is fourth in the nation in rushing at 323 yards per game. Quarterback Tevin Washington has run for 19 touchdowns.
"It's very difficult (to prepare for)," Kiffin said of Georgia Tech's offense. "Luckily, we had a month to prepare for it. I don't know how people do it in a week."
• Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore will forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
Moore leads the Aggies in tackles (80), sacks (12 ½) and tackles for loss (20) this season.
BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Coach Lane Kiffin, pictured Oct. 13 in Seattle, has guided USC to a 7-5 record and the Sun Bowl this year.