You can make a colorable argument that USC has been the best big game team in the country for the better part of this decade. When they lose, it is typically to a (sometimes much) lesser opponent. If you turn on the lights and tell the Trojans it really matters, they are perhaps the most indomitable opponent.
With the lone exception of the 2006 Rose Bowl, it is difficult to point to a hyped contest that USC lost. At Oregon, 2007? Perhaps, but their starting quarterback was out. Based on their record during the Carroll era, you could be forgiven for assuming they are immune to the pressures that come with having your name on the marquee.
A closer inspection, however, indicates that may not necessarily be true. The trip to Columbus is likely to be USC’s most challenging road game since Carroll took over. It will be the largest, and arguably loudest, crowd the Trojans will have seen in a while (Auburn 2003 was rowdy for about a 10 minutes until it was 10-0 USC and Autzen Stadium can be loud).
Throw in the three hour time change and a high-quality opponent looking for payback and you have an extremely intimidating environment.
Below is a list of what I believe to be Southern Cal’s most challenging road tilts since 2002. The analysis is a combination of the environment and quality of opponent. For example, even supposing there was 100,000 screaming fans, there would be no intimidation factor if the opposing team is 2-5.
|2002||(25)Kansas State||L, 27-20|
|2002||(17)Washington State||L, 30-27|
|2004||Virginia Tech (DC)||W, 24-13|
|2005||(14)Arizona State||W, 38-28|
|2005||(9)Notre Dame||W, 34-31|
|2007||(7)Arizona State||W, 44-24|
|2008||Oregon State||L, 27-21|
A couple of things about the table immediately jump out at you: (a) minus conference opponents, USC has not lost to a major non-conference opponent in the regular season since Kansas State in 2002, and (b) USC simply has not played a lot of difficult non-conference road games (part of that is attributable to ND’s 21st century slide). (I did not include the 2006 Rose Bowl because that was hardly a road game.)
It should be noted that the rankings in the parentheses was at the time of the game and some of those teams turned out to be much better or much worse than their ranking on that day indicated.
For example, in 2002 Kansas State and Washington State ended up in the Top 10, while the 2003 Auburn Tigers finished unranked. But final ranking does not necessarily impact the intimidation factor for that particular week because so much of it is perception. If a fan base believes their team is of elite caliber on the date of the game, they will approach the matchup with the requisite fervor.
While there is no dispute that Oregon and other Pac-10 destinations can be a handful, those are stadiums that USC plays in every other and, as a result, the intimidation of those venues is dulled somewhat.
So, the last true intimidating non-conference road venues USC has marched into are Jordan Hare Stadium in 2003 and Nebraska Memorial Stadium in 2007. While great stadiums, they are not Ohio Stadium and neither of those teams was the caliber of the 2009 Buckeyes.
I am not suggesting the USC will be intimidated when they take the field in two weeks, but if there is a place that is going to rattle the Trojans it will be the palace on the Olentangy. I could be wearing Scarlet colored glasses but I believe Ohio Stadium is going to threaten USC, at least for a little while.
Just like the night Vince Young and Texas played there, the OSU crowd will present the most difficult environment for USC this season and this decade.