The perception started when USC whipped Michigan, then Illinois in the past two Rose Bowls. By the time the Trojans pounded Ohio State 35-3 in September, the notion had made the transition from theory to fact.
Big Ten teams simply don't have the speed or athleticism to keep up with USC.
WHEN: 5 p.m. Jan. 1.
WHERE: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
TV: ABC (Brent Musburger will do play-by-play, with Kirk Herbstreit as the analyst).
THE LINE: USC by 9.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Penn State 4-1, USC 5-1.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Penn State T-68th, USC 70th.
BCS RANKINGS: Penn State 8th, USC 5th.
COACHES: Penn State − Joe Paterno (23-10-1 in bowls); USC − Pete Carroll (5-2 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This game should finally help us figure out whether Penn State ranks among the nation's elite teams this season. Penn State was two points from an undefeated season, but critics grouse that the Nittany Lions benefited from a weak Big Ten schedule. If USC blows out Penn State the way it blitzed Ohio State earlier this season, the critics will have plenty of ammunition for their arguments. If Penn State pulls the upset, the Nittany Lions will prove they're not just another overmatched Big Ten team. In fact, Penn State could make a decent argument that it deserves a share of the national title if it beats USC.
KEY STAT: USC has won its past eight games against Big Ten opponents by an average margin of 28.4 points.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Penn State doesn't have as much overall speed as USC, but Nittany Lions senior Derrick Williams can outrun just about anyone on the field. Although Williams is a wide receiver, he also has scored on three punt returns and two kickoff returns during his career. He even occasionally lines up at quarterback. Penn State probably won't beat USC unless Williams delivers at least a couple of big plays.
Penn State knows all about the perception, but it doesn't mean the Nittany Lions agree with it. They will try to defend their conference's honor Thursday as they attempt to prevent USC from winning a third consecutive Rose Bowl.
The lack of respect surrounding the Big Ten already has hurt Penn State. The Nittany Lions went 11-1 this season and were two points away from an undefeated season, but they're only eighth in the BCS standings and enter the Rose Bowl as nine-point underdogs.
"We get the least amount of respect of the one-loss teams, and everyone that says that doesn't give us a chance," Penn State wide receiver Deon Butler said. "We have a big chance to get some respect against USC."
USC has won its past eight games against Big Ten foes by an average margin of 28.4 points. The Trojans beat Michigan 32-18 in the Rose Bowl two seasons ago and dismantled Illinois 49-17 in last season's Rose Bowl.
Although USC's offense isn't as explosive as usual, the Trojans boast arguably the best defense this decade. Hard-hitting linebacker Rey Maualuga, the winner of the Bednarik Award that goes to the nation's top defensive player, leads a unit that ranks first in the nation in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. USC has allowed more than 10 points in a game just twice all season.
No wonder the Trojans are feeling confident.
"We're preparing for them like we've prepared for anyone else," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "We don't want to make them any different. We want it to be just a football game.
"It's no disrespect to Penn State. We know they are a formidable opponent, but we need to prepare the way we know how, and Coach [Pete] Carroll has a knack for preparing us for these big-time games on a national stage like this. I think we'll be just fine."
Of course, Penn State coach Joe Paterno also knows a thing or two about getting his team ready for the big stage. Paterno is 23-10-1 in bowl games and owns the NCAA records for bowl appearances and victories. Paterno should make sure Penn State avoids the awestruck approach Illinois seemed to take into last season's Rose Bowl, even if the Nittany Lions can't match USC's speed.
Penn State defensive end Josh Gaines said he believes the contrast in styles between Penn State and USC could allow the Nittany Lions to offer a tougher test than the Trojans' past two Rose Bowl opponents.
"People get so caught up on the speed, but I'm not sure it's just the speed," Gaines said. "It might be the names. A lot of times, people get caught up with who they're playing against. Different teams fit for different people. Last year it was Illinois, and Illinois likes to use speed. I don't think you can beat USC on the edge and try to use speed and try to use some of the stuff that they use. That's my personal opinion.
"I feel that if you want to go against USC, you have to hit them right in the mouth. You've got to run straight at them. Look at Oregon State. In the Oregon State game [a 27-21 Beavers victory], they took the ball right at them. The only way you can beat them, I think, is to go right at them. … I feel that with our line and our running backs, we definitely can have an advantage."
Oregon State offers Penn State plenty of cause for confidence. The Nittany Lions buried Oregon State 45-14 in the second week of the season. Less than three weeks later, Oregon State handed USC its only loss of the season.
Of course, a look at common opponents also could give USC reason to feel good about itself. USC buried Ohio State 35-3 at home in one of the most heavily hyped games of the regular season. Penn State struggled to beat the Buckeyes 13-6 at Ohio State.
Penn State supporters would argue the Ohio State team that went to USC hardly resembled the squad that gave the Nittany Lions a major scare six weeks later. Ohio State star running back Chris Wells sat out the USC game with an injury. The Buckeyes also played USC before they had made freshman Terrelle Pryor their starting quarterback.
At least one Ohio State player says Penn State could give USC quite a battle.
"Penn State's defense is going to surprise a lot of people," Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "USC's defense is going to have to play. Having played both of them, Penn State's defense really did a great job of stopping pretty much everything we gave them, and their offense is very talented, too. …
"I think it's going to be a closer game than people think as far as Penn State playing up to USC's ability, but I can't say who will win or not."
Who has the edge?
Penn State run offense vs. USC run defense This is a matchup of strength against strength. Evan Royster has run for 1,202 yards and a dozen touchdowns to help give Penn State the No. 13 rushing offense in the nation. Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark has run for nine touchdowns, while Stephfon Green is a breakaway threat who backs up Royster. They run behind a veteran line that features A.Q. Shipley, the winner of the Rimington Award as the nation's best center. But they haven't faced a defense quite as good as this one. USC ranks fifth in the nation in run defense and is allowing just 2.6 yards per carry. Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers burned USC for 186 yards, so the Trojans aren't invincible.
Penn State pass offense vs. USC pass defense Clark recovered from a late-season slump and helped the Nittany Lions throw for a school-record 419 yards in a 49-18 victory over Michigan State that wrapped up the Big Ten title. Jordan Norwood, Derrick Williams and Deon Butler give Clark plenty of experienced and talented veterans. Penn State's passing game is good, but USC's pass defense is outstanding. The Trojans lead the nation in pass efficiency defense and have allowed just four touchdown passes this season. Penn State better hope Clark stays healthy; Pat Devlin's decision to transfer leaves the Nittany Lions perilously thin at quarterback. Clark's backup is fifth-year senior Paul Cianciolo, who has thrown nine passes in mop-up duty this season.
USC run offense vs. Penn State run defense USC ranks 17th in the nation in rushing and has run for at least 173 yards in five consecutive games, though the Trojans didn't have any individual run for as much as 650 yards. Joe McKnight delivered a potential breakthrough performance in last season's Rose Bowl, but he didn't build on that momentum and instead endured a maddeningly inconsistent year. Penn State ranks ninth in the nation in run defense and held Ohio State's Chris Wells and Michigan State's Javon Ringer to less than 3 yards per carry.
Edge: Penn State.
USC pass offense vs. Penn State pass defense USC quarterback Mark Sanchez has thrown 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in his past seven games. Damian Williams, Patrick Turner and Ronald Johnson have combined for 24 touchdown catches. They'll be facing a solid Penn State secondary that has helped the Nittany Lions rank fourth in the nation in pass efficiency defense. This matchup could come down to whether USC's line can keep Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin, who has 12 sacks this season, away from Sanchez. The Trojans allowed just 17 sacks this season.
Penn State special teams vs. USC special teams Penn State kicker Kevin Kelly is 19-of-23 on field-goal attempts and 4-for-8 from at least 40 yards. Jeremy Boone averages 42.5 yards per punt. USC's David Buehler is 8-for-12 on field-goal attempts and 2-for-5 from at least 40. Greg Woidneck averages 36.6 yards per punt for USC. Williams' presence gives Penn State a chance for a big play on any return. USC's punt-coverage unit has struggled, but its kick-coverage unit is OK. Penn State is the reverse: Its punt-coverage unit is good, but its kick-coverage unit is mediocre. USC has returned just 21 kickoffs, but Johnson is a dangerous return man. USC's punt returners are adequate.
Edge: Penn State.
Penn State coaches vs. USC coaches Joe Paterno leads all coaches in bowl victories and appearances, and he engineered one of the great upsets in bowl history when Penn State's Fiesta victory over Miami gave the Nittany Lions the 1986 national title. Pete Carroll arguably is the best coach working today and often has his team at its best when the Trojans are playing a bowl game or facing a Big Ten opponent. The biggest concern for the Trojans might involve offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's focus as he wraps up his USC career before taking over as Washington's coach. A variety of injuries have kept Paterno in the press box for most of the season, but he has benefited from a talented staff that includes two of the nation's top coordinators in Tom Bradley (defense) and Galen Hall (offense).
X-factor: The Sarkisian situation bears watching. USC's offense hasn't necessarily played up to its talent level this season, and the distraction of Sarkisian's impending departure could have an impact on this game. Will his divided loyalties result in a lack of focus?
Penn State will win if: The Nittany Lions' chances could depend on Clark's performance. If Clark plays the way he did against Oregon State and Michigan State, Penn State just might pull the upset. If he delivers a repeat of his Iowa performance, the Nittany Lions have no shot. Penn State also has to hold McKnight in check and limit USC's big plays in the passing game. If this game is close enough to come down to special teams, the Nittany Lions have an edge in that department.
USC will win if: This game probably won't feature enough scoring to turn into a replay of the past two Rose Bowl routs, but USC should win as long as it takes an early lead. If USC's defensive line wins the battle with Penn State's talented offensive line, the Trojans should capture their third consecutive Rose Bowl title.
The picks Olin Buchanan: USC 20, Penn State 14
Tom Dienhart: Penn State 17, USC 14
David Fox: USC 31, Penn State 21
Mike Huguenin: USC 20, Penn State 16
Steve Megargee: USC 20, Penn State 17