USC-Auburn: Top 10 teams meet in season opener

Updated: August 28, 2003, 7:54 PM ET

AUBURN, Ala. -- It's just the season opener, not the Iron Bowl against rival Alabama, yet No. 6 Auburn is well aware of the importance of Saturday's game against No. 8 Southern California.

"This is probably the biggest game any of us have ever been involved in our careers," Tigers defensive end Reggie Torbor said.

The Trojans, too, know their cross-country trip could turn into something special.

"Two top 10 teams, the first big game of the season, down South. It's going to be great," USC defensive tackle Shaun Cody said.

Both teams were picked as the preseason favorites to win their conferences, Auburn the Southeastern, and USC the Pacific-10. The winner on Saturday likely becomes a national championship contender, as well.

Neither coach is about to get worked up over predictions, though. USC's Pete Carroll has immediate worries, such as replacing Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer. He's going with Matt Leinart, whose next college pass will be his first.

Even though Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says a loss won't be devastating since it's not a league game, there's a louder buzz than usual.

"People think once we go to football practice and once it's over with that we go home and relax away from football," Tigers quarterback Jason Campbell said. "But you never hear the end of it. I can imagine what Saturday's going to be like."

Also Saturday, No. 2 Ohio State opens defense of its national title -- without suspended star tailback Maurice Clarett -- when it plays host to No. 17 Washington.

In other Top 25 games, it's North Texas at No. 1 Oklahoma, Central Michigan at No. 4 Michigan, Troy State at No. 7 Kansas State, No. 11 Georgia at Clemson, Fresno State at No. 12 Tennessee, No. 13 Florida State at North Carolina, Louisiana-Monroe at No. 14 LSU, Western Carolina at No. 16 North Carolina State, Duke at No. 18 Virginia, No. 21 Wisconsin at West Virginia, No. 23 Colorado State vs. Colorado (at Denver), and No. 24 Oklahoma State at Nebraska

On Sunday, New Mexico State visits No. 5 Texas and Central Florida is at No. 9 Virginia Tech.

USC won its final eight games last season, including a rout of Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Auburn, which lost at USC to open last season, closed out 2002 with wins over Alabama and Penn State.

The last time USC took part in an opener between such highly ranked teams was 1972, when the eighth-ranked Trojans played No. 4 Arkansas. USC won the national title that year.

"To win this game would be great, but it does not mean anything until we can put some wins together," Carroll said. "I think we're pretty levelheaded about that."

The Tigers, more accustomed to opening with the likes of Ball State and Appalachian State, have only begun four other seasons against ranked opponents -- none at home or against a Top 10 team.

Tuberville wants to win, but defeat won't mean a lost season.

"Obviously you would think it would help your team and your fans to be able to go out and stick your chests out a little bit," Tuberville said. "The thing I told our football team is this is a game we put everything into to win. We want them to know that, but you never want to put all your eggs in one basket.

"This is not a conference game."

The Tigers may be considered a national title long shot, but there hasn't been much title talk at Auburn since Bo Jackson's senior season in 1985.

Auburn hasn't won the SEC since 1989 and hasn't finished in the Top 10 since '94.

"That's one thing we've been trying to get, to get the respect back," linebacker Dontarrious Thomas said. "To get the Auburn program back where it was in the past."

Same is true for USC, which regularly contended for national titles under John McKay in the 1960s and 1970s.

"This is a really exciting time for us," Carroll said. "After so much talk, thoughts and dreams about the next season, finally we're there."< ^Washington-Ohio State=

The Buckeyes will rely on a tough defense to shut down Huskies quarterback Cody Pickett, who threw for a Pac-10 record 4,458 yards last season. Also back is wide receiver Reggie Williams, who had 94 catches for 1,464 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Ohio State is led by quarterback Craig Krenzel, with every other starter from last season back. Maurice Hall will start for Clarett. Two-way star Chris Gamble, with 31 catches and four interceptions last season, is among several defensive leaders.

This will be Washington's first game under Keith Gilbertson, who replaced the fired Rick Neuheisel shortly before the start of preseason practice.< ^Oklahoma State-Nebraska=

Nebraska linebacker T.J. Howell put this one in perspective: "This isn't the Super Bowl, but it's a game we have to win."

Coming off their worst season since 1961, the Huskers will try to start strong against a rising Big 12 force. The Cowboys won last season, ending a 36-game winless streak against Nebraska.

Oklahoma State is led by 1,000-yard receiver Rashaun Woods and 3,000-yard passer Josh Fields. Nebraska, with coach Frank Solich hiring a new set of assistants, is likely to pass more with Jammal Lord.

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