USC-Auburn; Washington-Ohio State highlight football Saturday

Updated: August 29, 2003, 11:44 AM ET

JERSEY CITY, New Jersey - Come Labor Day weekend, Southern California knew it would have to replace Carson Palmer. Ohio State did not think it would have to do the same with Maurice Clarett.

With Palmer now in the NFL, No. 8 Southern California will give sophomore Matt Leinart the start at quarterback in Saturday's college football showdown at No. 6 Auburn.

The other marquee game on Saturday is in Columbus, Ohio, where No. 2 Ohio State begins defense of its national championship by hosting No. 19 Washington. But the Buckeyes will be without Clarett, who has been suspended and could miss the first six games of the season.

Leinart, who has yet to throw a pass at USC, emerged as the favorite in spring practice and will get the call from coach Pete Carroll.

"Carson Palmer had a marvelous year and really benefited from the system and the players around him," Carroll said. "What we want to happen again is to have our starting quarterback again benefit from the system and the players around him."

Also on the USC roster is Brandon Hance, who sat out last year after transferring from Purdue.

Auburn, ranked in the preseason top 10 for the first time since 1995, is looking to avenge last season's 24-17 loss at USC in the first meeting between the teams. Palmer scored on a one-yard sneak with 1:26 remaining to give the Trojans the victory.

USC is making its first trip to the state of Alabama since beating top-ranked Alabama, 24-14, in Birmingham in 1978. The two schools shared the national title that year.

The Tigers are expected to be stingy on defense and return their top three running backs, including Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who rushed for 745 yards and 10 touchdowns last year before suffering a season-ending broken leg against Florida.

Ohio State hoped to bask in the glory of its dramatic Fiesta Bowl victory over Miami, but instead has been the center of controversy involving Clarett, who was suspended for violating NCAA rules and giving false statements to campus police regarding the theft of a borrowed vehicle. A university panel also is probing charges of academic fraud involving Clarett.

There also was controversy at Washington, where coach Rick Neuheisel was fired over the summer for participating in a high-priced NCAA basketball tournament pool. Offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson, a former head coach at California, was promoted to replace Neuheisel.

Ohio State will bring a 14-game winning streak, the longest current run in the nation, into Saturday's game and has high hopes of being the first repeat national champion since Nebraska in 1995.

A national champion has not opened the following season with a loss at home since Notre Dame lost to Missouri in 1978, and coach Jim Tressel knows the job will be a tough one.

"Everyone is trying to knock us off the mountaintop," Tressel said.

With Clarett on the sidelines, the primary rushing responsibilities will fall to Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross. Ross started three games last season and finished the year with 619 rushing yards.

No. 3 Miami, which saw its chances of a second straight national title spoiled in the Fiesta Bowl, opened the holiday weekend festivities with a 48-9 rout of Louisiana Tech on Thursday night.

Brock Berlin, a transfer from the University of Florida, had a successful debut for the Hurricanes, completing 14-of-28 passes for 203 yards.

Antrel Rolle had a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 33-yard interception return for a score as the Hurricanes used a big third quarter to pull away.

No. 14 Maryland was not as fortunate, getting stunned by Northern Illinois, 20-13 in overtime. The Terrapins allowed the Huskies to hang around early and suffered a series of defensive lapses late.

Top-ranked Oklahoma will open its season against North Texas and will wear replica uniforms of those worn by Bud Wilkinson's teams in the 1950s.

One of the more intriguing games on Saturday's schedule has Nebraska hosting No. 24 Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State is vastly improved under coach Les Miles and knocked off both Nebraska and Oklahoma last season. Nebraska was 7-7 last season, the first time since 1968 it did not win at least nine games.

In addition to Washington, the most notable change in the coaching world this offseason was in Alabama, where Mike Price was hired and fired and replaced by Mike Shula. Shula coaches his first game on Saturday when the Crimson Tide face South Florida in Birmingham, Alabama.

No. 5 Kansas State (1-0), which defeated California last week in the Black Coaches Association Classic, will host Troy State; No. 7 Michigan hosts Central Michigan and No. 9 Georgia visits Clemson.

In other games on Saturday, No. 11 Florida State is at North Carolina, No. 13 North Carolina State is at Western Carolina, No. 15 LSU hosts Louisiana-Monroe, No. 16 Tennessee hosts Fresno State, No. 17 Virginia entertains Duke, No. 20 Wisconsin is at West Virginia, No. 21 Florida entertains San Jose State and No. 25 Iowa welcomes Miami Ohio.

Two ranked teams are in action on Sunday. No. 4 Texas entertains New Mexico State and No. 10 Virginia Tech hosts Central Florida.

No. 12 Pittsburgh, No. 18 Notre Dame, No. 22 Purdue and No. 23 Arizona State all open their season on September 6.

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