Trojans-Tigers meet in Top 10 clash

Updated: August 28, 2003, 2:10 PM ET

AUBURN, Ala. -- When college football fans last saw Southern California and Auburn, both teams were enjoying the kind of winning run unseen on either campus in years.

Now, they're back in a season-opening matchup Saturday that could stamp the winner as a national championship contender.

The eighth-ranked Trojans are the preseason favorites to win the Pacific-10 Conference while the sixth-ranked Tigers hold the same favored status in the Southeastern Conference.

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

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

But will the teams be great? The first game is unlikely to settle that question, but fans of both schools will be highly disappointed if they're not.

Nevermind that USC is replacing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer with sophomore Matt Leinart, whose next college pass will also be his first.

The Trojans won their final eight games of 2002, including routs of Notre Dame and, in the Orange Bowl, Iowa.

They haven't been part of an opener between two such highly ranked teams since 1972 when No. 8 USC played No. 4 Arkansas. That USC team, incidentally, won the national championship.

An omen? Or just a very nice start to a long season?

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

The Tigers were more accustomed to opening seasons with pencilled-in victories against the likes of Ball State and Appalachian State before last year's opening loss at USC.

In fact, Auburn has only begun four other seasons against ranked foes, none at home or against a Top 10 team.

A win would give the Tigers cause for pride, but not too much celebration, coach Tommy Tuberville said. After all, it won't help in the league championship hunt.

"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."

Tuberville said it rivals the annual Iron Bowl with Alabama as the most anticipated game of his head coaching career.

Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell said there has been no escaping the buzz surrounding this game.

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

"The best thing about this game is we have an opportunity to evaluate ourselves at the end of it," he said.

The last time Auburn has entered a season with such a high ranking was in 1995, when the Tigers were also picked sixth.

Tuberville's team is considered a longshot for the national title, but there has hardly even been such talk at Auburn since Bo Jackson's senior season in 1985. This is a program that hasn't won a league title since capturing its third straight 1989 or finished a season in the Top 10 since 1994.

The Tigers knocked off three Top 10 teams in the final six games last season.

"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."

Ditto for USC, which regularly contended for national championships under John McKay in the 1960s and 1970s.

Carroll is ready to stop talking about it and really put his team to the test.

"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.

"We have such an eye-catching matchup with a terrific Auburn team and it is a bigtime challenge for us."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index