Rose Bowl gets desired Big 10/Pac-10 matchup with USC drawing Illinois

Updated: December 3, 2007, 2:19 AM ET
Associated Press

Don't mess with Rose Bowl tradition.

Organizers decided to stick with their historical Pac-10-Big Ten matchup Sunday, picking 13th-ranked Illinois to play Southern California (No. 7 BCS, No. 6 AP) on New Year's Day after Ohio State Buckeyes got upgraded to the national championship game.

"Illinois presented the tradition of the Big Ten-Pac-10, and wanting to stick with that tradition when we can was really the primary decision,'' said CL Keedy, president of the Tournament of Roses Association.

It is the first trip to Pasadena for the Illini (9-3) since 1983, and their first bowl game since the 2001 season. For the Trojans (10-2), the Rose Bowl is getting to be like their own New Year's tradition. This is their third straight trip, fourth in the past five seasons and 32nd overall.

"I like, frankly, that it's Pac-10-Big Ten. I think that's cool that that's the way it came off,'' USC coach Pete Carroll said. "We're fired up about it and we're going to have fun with it and have a great time in preparation. Nothing but good stuff. It's a good day.''

A good day for Rose Bowl organizers, who are fiercely protective of their history and traditions. They were the last holdout for the Bowl Championship Series, and have tried to keep the Pac-10-Big Ten matchup whenever possible.

In this, the wackiest of seasons, it sure looked to be in jeopardy. Ohio State began the weekend at No. 3, but when Missouri and West Virginia lost, it jumped back up to No. 1 -- and into the national title game.

That meant Rose Bowl organizers could pick a team from outside the Big Ten, and there were some big names to consider. While Georgia wasn't available, Boston College and unbeaten Hawaii were.

So were the Illini, and in the end, history won out.

"It hasn't soaked in yet,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "The Rose Bowl is hard to get to. There's a reason why they call it 'The Granddaddy of them all.'"

There was more to Illinois than its conference, though. The Illini have orchestrated one of the best turnarounds of the year after going 2-10 last season, including beating two top-five teams. They upset Wisconsin when the Badgers were ranked No. 5, and then stunned No. 1 Ohio State -- doing it at The Horseshoe, no less.

And they're sure to bring plenty of friends with them to Pasadena. This is only the fifth Rose Bowl appearance for Illinois.

"I'm just very excited for this opportunity,'' quarterback Juice Williams said. "I don't think I'm going to throw this rose away for a couple of weeks.''

The Trojans are happy to be Rose Bowl-bound, too, even if they are one of several teams that could make a case they deserved a shot at the BCS title game on Jan. 7.

Southern California began the season at No. 1, but its hopes for a third national title in five years took a huge hit in early October with an ugly loss at home to 41-point underdog Stanford. However, the Trojans regrouped, and are playing as well as anyone in the country right now.

"If you're a competitor, you want to play the best. Obviously, this is one of the best teams in the country,'' Zook said. "So we'll have our hands full.''

The Trojans won four straight to end the season and take the Pac-10 title for the sixth consecutive year. They allowed just 51 points over those last four games that included an impressive 44-24 victory at Arizona State.

Along with Georgia, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, the Trojans could claim they deserve to play Ohio State as much as LSU.

"I don't think you can help but think about that,'' USC nose tackle Sedrick Ellis said of the Stanford loss costing USC a shot at another national title. "But that was in the past, and there's nothing we can do about it now.''

Besides, the Rose Bowl isn't a bad consolation prize. Especially with all that tradition.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press