BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) – As always this time of year, the buzz in LA is about college football. More specifically, the front-page news is about this city’s “other’ program, UCLA, and its new celebrity coach, Rick Neuheisel.

The Rose Bowl and Southern California – they’ve been shuffled to the back, both locally and nationally, thanks to Neuheisel and a few other reasons:

1) USC seems to play in this game pretty much every year.

2) The Trojans, despite always making the Rose Bowl their No. 1 goal, are in Pasadena for the second straight season after squandering a decent chance to play for the national title.

3) Their opponent, Illinois, is arguably the freshest story going on here this week. But the Illini are a three-loss team, Big Ten runners-up, don’t have the warm-and-fuzzy potential of, say, Hawaii or Boise State, and are the biggest underdogs of this season’s 32 bowl games, at 131/2 points.

It’s hard to remember the Granddaddy of ’em All ever looking like this much of an undercard.

Can anyone say “playoff?’

“I know there’s other games out there, and now and then, you get a chance to go,” USC coach Pete Carroll said Monday. “But to come back here again is a great thrill, and it’s really the target of our program.”

Apparently not the target of many a USC fan out there.

Trojan boosters are a hard-core group, and lots of them have money. Fans spent thousands to fly to Miami to watch USC in the Orange Bowl a few years ago. And $1,000 wasn’t enough to even get them in the stadium two years ago to see the Trojans against Texas in the Rose Bowl, when that was the national title game.

But they’re not paying much for this matchup. Over the weekend, tickets on the 50-yard line were going for around $350.

Even Carroll acknowledged that he’d love to see how far the sixth-ranked Trojans (10-2) could go in a playoff system. Four weeks ago, when the BCS pairings came out, he lobbied for a spot in the national title game and said it was clear nobody in the country would want to play his team.

“I’m not here to say that would make us national champions,” Carroll said of a playoff. “It would be really exciting to be part of that process. Each year that we’ve been in this, we felt like we would like that opportunity. Why we don’t have it, I don’t know. I don’t know those rules and issues and all that. I don’t really care about them. That’s the way we would like to do it.”

One reason the bowl system stays the way it is, is because of teams such as Illinois.

Sure, the 13th-ranked Illini (9-3) appear to be overmatched in this game and made it because the Big Ten champion, Ohio State, is slated for the BCS title game. (And because Rose Bowl officials were insistent on a traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup.)

Still, this trip is nothing less than the culmination of an impossible dream for both coach Ron Zook and the program.

Illinois averaged slightly more than four wins a year for the last decade. Zook went 2-19 after taking the job in Champaign following his choppy three-year tenure at Florida.

“I’ve always been depressed” come New Year’s Day, said senior safety Kevin Mitchell. “I always came into the season thinking we’d be somewhere, but we never were. You didn’t really want to watch any of the games on TV. You just kind of waited for it to all be over.”

This time, though, Mitchell and Illinois are America’s New Year’s Day entertainment.

At least they hope they can be.

Zook said he’s trying to keep his team focused and “ready to handle the onslaught” for Illinois’ first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 24 years, when none other than Neuheisel quarterbacked UCLA to a 45-9 blowout.

“I’ve had people tell me that when you come out onto the field, it’s breathtaking,” Zook said. “That’s something we have to handle. The guys asked me what to expect and I told them, “I’ve never been here either.’ I want them to appreciate it and enjoy it. But let’s be ready to play in it, too.”

Nobody knows the drill better than USC. This will be the 32nd “trip” to the Rose Bowl for the Trojans and the fourth in the last five years.

For those with a sense of the big picture, this is still something to celebrate. Before Carroll arrived, USC had fallen back to mediocrity, making trips to the Freedom and Sun Bowls and longing for the days when Rose Bowl trips seemed routine.

Through it all, one thing has remained the same. Every day, when the players take the “All-American” walk out of Heritage Hall to the practice field, they pass a wall-sized picture of the stadium in Pasadena that says “Own the Rose Bowl.”

Indeed, USC has owned it of late, even though this year, it hardly seems like what it used to be.

“We set our own goals,” defensive lineman Lawrence Jackson said. “If we let you guys set our goals, we’d be in pretty bad shape. That’s why we remain focused on getting to the Rose Bowl. Anything else after that is a gift to us, but the Rose Bowl is where we want to be.”

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