Win or lose, USC game will shape Buckeyes' image

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In his recent rundown of must-see games this season, colleague Bruce Feldman touched on the potential impact of the Ohio State-USC contest for the Buckeyes. It goes without saying that a home loss to the Trojans, especially one by double digits, would further damage Ohio State's national reputation.

But Feldman contends that even a victory might not be a major help to the Buckeyes' cause.

I'm not sure this game is as much a proving-ground battle as last year's at USC was for Ohio State. My sense is that if the Buckeyes handle the Trojans here, it'll still be a big win, but not monumental in the pollsters' eyes. It'll be too easy for critics to write it off, saying that this was the first road game the Trojans' new QB (Aaron Corp or Matt Barkley) ever played. Plus, USC lost so many guys to the NFL on defense. That wouldn't be fair to the Buckeyes, given that they lost a ton to the NFL as well. If OSU does win, they figure to cruise to a 9-0 start before facing Penn State in Happy Valley. This might be the game in which Terrelle Pryor emerges as a superstar.

Feldman might be dead-on about the pundits writing off an Ohio State victory. Despite the Buckeyes' recent struggles in national showcase games, they have several factors working in their favor Sept. 12 at Ohio Stadium. They have a more experienced quarterback (Pryor) than USC, more experience on defense (seven returning starters vs. five) and advantage of playing in Columbus, where they're 23-1 in nonconference games under head coach Jim Tressel.

When you look at these two teams strictly in their current forms -- disregarding recent history -- you can label Ohio State as the favorite to win and stand behind your prediction. But that's exactly the point. You can't look at this game in such a way.

USC's dominant decade on the gridiron has established the Trojans as a team that can't be marginalized by statistics such as starters lost vs. starters returning or production lost vs. production returning. Pete Carroll's program has been a factor in the national scene for each of the last seven seasons (much like Ohio State, aside from 2004). USC has overcome the losses of Heisman Trophy winners, defensive standouts and elite linemen to average 11.7 wins since 2002.

Bottom line: A win against USC always means a lot. It's always a big deal. A program that has been hyped more than any other in the country -- and justifiably so, for the most part -- can't be diminished only when it's convenient. That reeks of hypocrisy.

Let's not forget that USC has built its sparkling national reputation on winning games just like this one. The Trojans haven't lost a regular-season nonconference game since Sept. 21, 2002, against Kansas State. They have crushed ranked BCS teams in September, notching blowout victories against Colorado (40-3 in 2002), Auburn (23-0 in 2003), Nebraska (28-10 in 2006 and 49-31 in 2007), and Ohio State (35-3 in 2008).

Taking things one step further, USC has been incredible in Week 2 matchups, winning its last seven. Average margin of victory: 32 points.

USC occasionally falls asleep at the wheel against Pac-10 foes, but Carroll always prepares his teams well for early season showcase games. It reminds me a lot of how Tressel prepares Ohio State for Michigan every year. Both coaches are virtually infallible in those situations.

It comes down to this: If the Buckeyes knock off USC, they deserve a ton of credit. And if they lose, they deserve plenty of blame (believe me, they'll get it). There's no gray area for the Scarlet and Gray, which makes the matchup all the more exciting.