LOS ANGELES -- The buildup to tonight's Rose Bowl has given me a giant case of déjà vu. Suddenly it's 2002 all over again, and I am covering the Miami-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl.
Both teams are undefeated, yet hardly a soul is giving the less glamorous Buckeyes a fighting chance. The Hurricanes, winners of 34 straight games, were pre-ordained to win another national championship before the season even started, and they've often played like it, lollygagging for three quarters against Rutgers, needing a miraculous last-minute rally to survive against Florida State. And yet, as the game approaches, my colleagues in the media never consider for a minute that Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee won't roll over Ohio State's heretofore stingy defense.
I've covered both teams several times during the season, and my gut tells me the Buckeyes are being overlooked. They're more physical than Miami is accustomed to and they don't make mistakes. But, alas, I go along with the majority and pick the 'Canes. You know what happens.
Three years later, another star-studded juggernaut, USC, is also riding a 34-game winning streak, and though Texas hasn't lost in nearly two years either, pundits from coast to coast have already chalked up the contest as a Trojan coronation. At dinner the other night, a fellow writer was incredulous that I would even suggest the Longhorns have a chance, or that Reggie Bush will do anything less than run for 200 yards. SportsCenter spent two straight weeks matching up this year's USC squad against the greatest teams of all time -- before the Trojans actually won their third national championship.
All of which is a tad baffling considering the 2005 Trojans, while unquestionably special, have hardly been inhuman. They came within seconds of falling at Notre Dame. They gave up 42 points to a Fresno State team that didn't win a game the rest of the year. The 'Horns had a couple of mild scares against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, but mostly they beat people by scores like 52-17 and 70-3. They went on the road and beat an Ohio State team that will likely finish the season ranked in the top five.
I'm experiencing that same gut feeling I did three years ago. And this time, I'm not ignoring it.
Texas will pull off the upset and here's why:
USC hasn't seen a defense like Texas'. Bush was asked the other day which defense was the toughest his team faced this season. After a moment of contemplation, the Heisman winner replied, "We've faced a lot of tough defenses ... Arizona State did a great job against us. Notre Dame. Oregon." The three teams Bush mentioned entered bowl season ranked 114th, 75th and 45th, respectively, in total defense. Texas is fifth.
While such stats can certainly be deceiving, Trojans offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin says the 'Horns are not only the toughest defense they've faced this season, but also the toughest in his five years at USC. "It's not even close," he said. "The one thing Oklahoma had [going against it] last year was they'd given up big plays in the secondary. With Texas, you don't see that. We're going to have to go out there and do something we haven't seen happen [against them]."
Texas' defense is much faster, particularly at linebacker, than what the Trojans see in the Pac-10, which means Bush, who usually relies on his speed advantage, may actually take a backseat in this game to the more physical LenDale White. And the 'Horns' secondary, led by All-America strong safety Michael Huff, is better-suited than most to defend USC'sreceivers. Certainly, the 'Horns aren't going to completely shut down the Trojans. No one can. But this isn't likely to be the usual cakewalk for Bush, Leinart & Co. "Talent-wise," said Texas co-defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, "we feel it's going to be an even game."
Vince Young is poised for a big game. It's tough for any team to defend the junior quarterback, but the Trojans may be at a particular disadvantage in that they play in the one conference in the country, the Pac-10, devoid of mobile quarterbacks -- and Young just happens to be extremely mobile. "There's nobody like [Young]," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "There are guys who can run and throw, but nobody has ever been this fast."
If this was last year's USC defense, whose front four could overpower any opposing line, Young would have a harder time getting outside the pocket. But it's no secret this year's Trojan D is good, but not great. It's unlikely USC can get pressure on Young with just its front four, and if it does bring linebackers or safeties, Young has the ability to burn the Trojans' susceptible cornerbacks with deep passes to Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman, particularly off of play-action.
There is some thinking that Young will "press" against the Trojans and make mistakes (he does still turn the ball over more than he should). From what I've seen, however, Young is one of those truly exceptional leaders who tends to excel on the biggest stages (see last year's Rose Bowl win over Michigan or the last-minute rally at Ohio State). "It's pretty much my calling," said Young. "I'm meant to be a leader."