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BOB RYAN

Juicy matchup is one to savor

MIAMI -- This is a matchup that makes you think all's right with the sports world after all. The 2005 Orange Bowl is the comfort food of athletic events.

We have undefeated USC versus undefeated Oklahoma. No offense, Auburn, but if you guys were here, we just wouldn't have the same resonance.

Auburn has some history, sure, but don't suggest that the Tigers have a resume anything close to the ones offered up by the Trojans and Sooners, who have combined for 1,455 wins, 17 national titles, and nine Heisman Trophy winners. Of course, this is about a bit more than history. This is about the here and now.

This is about the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (USC quarterback Matt Leinart) against the Heisman Trophy winner once-removed (Oklahoma quarterback Jason White). This is about a spectacular all-purpose offensive force (USC's Reggie Bush) against an explosive freshman running back (Adrian Peterson). This is about the Pac-10 against the Big 12. Most of all, this is about a certified irresistible force (the Oklahoma offensive line) against a certified immovable object (the USC defensive line).

In football, you're generally wise to start with the basics, and there is nothing more basic than the territorial battle that starts at the snap of the ball. In this game, the nation's most acclaimed offensive line will see what it can do against the nation's most acclaimed front four, two of whom -- Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson -- may be the very best defensive linemen in America.

"We're going to have to find a way to create problems and keep the running game in order and make it hard on the quarterback," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "If we're unable to do that, then Oklahoma will be able to run their offense as they'd like to, and that makes it very difficult. It doesn't mean we can't win, but it does make it very difficult."

"They're a strong group, very good players, very active, so it's a big challenge," acknowledged Oklahoma mentor Bob Stoops. "It's a big part of the game. Our offensive guys take a lot of pride. I like the fact we come in with great experience there and great ability there, so that's going to be a big matchup."

There will be a sufficient amount of plots and subplots to keep us all interested once the game starts. But so much of our sports experience is about anticipation, and if you have any remote interest in the history of college football, you have to have the goose-bump thing going just thinking about the Oklahoma of Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer going up against the Southern California of John McKay and John Robinson for the national title.

Messrs. Stoops and Carroll are fully aware of the ghosts.

"You can't ignore their tradition and history, as well," said Stoops of his rivals. "The great players that were through there and the great records. So, definitely, I think playing them does give it an extra kick and more excitement."

"I think it makes the whole matchup awesome," agreed Carroll. "The fact that it's two storied programs coming together at a time when they're really on the rise, you capture all of the people who have ever loved Oklahoma football or who ever loved USC football, and they get to come back to this matchup. And it doesn't necessarily mean it's all former players or coaches. It's just anybody who liked the programs or had fun watching us in the past, so you cross a lot of generations."

It is all the more enticing today because not very long ago it would have been inconceivable. For each of these schools had a significant period of recession in the not-too-distant past.

The 1990s were sometimes painful for each. Things began to fall apart at USC after Robinson (in his second Trojan incarnation) guided the team to victory over Northwestern in the 1996 Rose Bowl. Robinson's teams went 12-11 the next two years, and he departed. He was replaced by Paul Hackett, the very same punching bag of Jets fans (study Sunday's loss to the Rams), whose three-year record was 19-18. That made USC a pedestrian 31-29 over a five-year period.

Oklahoma went similarly southward from 1994 through 1998. The dip began when Gary Gibbs went 6-6 in 1994. And does anyone even remember that Howard Schnellenberger passed through Norman? Well, he did, for one year, departing quickly after going 5-5-1 in 1995. The program was then entrusted to John Blake, who went 12-22 during three forgettable years. That made the Sooners a horrifying 23-33-1 in a five-year span.

So we wouldn't have cared much about a Trojan-Sooner matchup in, say, 1996, when USC was 6-6 and Oklahoma was 3-8 and losing at home to Tulsa (not to mention losing to Nebraska by a 73-21 score).

But Stoops arrived in 1999 to straighten out the Sooners and Carroll assumed control two years later to stop the bleeding at USC. Stoops won a national title in his second year. Carroll needed three. Somehow, I spy some cause-and-effect business here.

Let's be honest. These are schools that should be great. Oklahoma may not have a great population base, but the Sooners have proven for decades they can recruit nationally, most notably in neighboring Texas, where Peterson is only the latest in a long line of Texas-bred Sooner greats. Football is a matter of unimaginable importance in Norman. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Oklahoma the place of which it was long ago jokingly said, "We need a school the football team can be proud of?"

As for USC, lately the cradle of Heisman quarterbacks, isn't it a given that any USC coach can open his office window, yell out, and be heard by about 10 first-rate tailbacks? California is embarrassingly rich in athletes, and who wouldn't want to play before a full house in the Coliseum with that horse running around and that awesome band playing one of the great fight songs? USC has everything going for it, and when Carroll had a chance to gain control, it was a no-brainer.

"I'm a California guy," he explained. "It's the best school in the state to represent football, in my opinion. Growing up, I felt like that, so I very proudly have that opportunity."

Now he and Stoops have the opportunity to put tremendous teams on the field to decide the national championship. And not just any two great teams. These are great USC and Oklahoma teams. This is a matchup that should have both grandpa and the resident 7-year-old planted before the TV set. This is what American sport is all about.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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