BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - As always this time of year, the buzz in LA is about college football. More specifically, the front-page news is about this city's "other" program, UCLA, and its new coach, Rick Neuheisel.
The Rose Bowl and Southern Cal - they've been shuffled to the back, both locally and nationally, thanks to Neuheisel and a few other reasons:
1) USC seems to play in this game pretty much every year.
2) The Trojans, despite always making the Rose Bowl their No. 1 goal, are in Pasadena for the second straight year after squandering a chance to play for the national title.
3) Their opponent, Illinois, is arguably the freshest story going on here this week. But the Illini, a three-loss team and Big Ten runners-up, don't have the warm-and-fuzzy potential of, say, Hawaii or Boise State, and are the biggest underdogs of this season's 32 bowl games, at 13 1/2 points.
It's hard to remember the Granddaddy of 'em All ever looking like this much of an undercard.
Can anyone say "playoff?"
"I know there's other games out there, and now and then, you get a chance to go," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "But to come back here again is a great thrill, and it's really the target of our program."
Apparently not the target of many a USC fan out there.
Trojan boosters are a hard-core group, and lots of them have money. Fans spent thousands to fly to Miami to watch USC in the Orange Bowl a few years ago. And $1,000 wasn't enough to even get them in the stadium two years ago to see the Trojans against Texas in the Rose Bowl, when that was the national title game.
But they're not paying much for this matchup. Over the weekend, tickets on the 50-yard line were going for $350.
Even Carroll acknowledged that he'd love to see how far the sixth-ranked Trojans (10-2) could go in a playoff system. Four weeks ago, when the BCS pairings came out, he lobbied for a spot in the national title game and said it was clear nobody in the country would want to play his team.
"I'm not here to say that would make us national champions," Carroll said of a playoff. "It would be really exciting to be part of that process. Each year that we've been in this, we felt like we would like that opportunity. Why we don't have it, I don't know."
One reason the bowl system stays the way it is, is because of teams such as Illinois.
Sure, the 13th-ranked Illini (9-3) appear to be overmatched in this game and made it because the Big Ten champion, Ohio State, is slated for the BCS title game. (And because Rose Bowl officials were insistent on a traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup.)
Still, this trip is nothing less than the culmination of an impossible dream for Coach Ron Zook and a program that averaged slightly more than four wins a year for the past decade.