USC will be represented by two aces, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, in the top 10 of the NFL draft in the not too distant future, I'd say. Such a distinction doesn't happen every year. A runner like Bush, who has both rare speed and the rare ability to make hard, fast cuts, is rarely combined with a college passer who has Leinart's coolness and proficiency under pressure.

That isn't to say they'll win the national college championship in the Orange Bowl Jan. 4. To beat an Oklahoma team that's much improved this year, Leinart will have to put the ball in Bush's hands much more often. At either running back or wide receiver, Bush can and should be thrown to repeatedly in open land away from the scrimmage line. And he should carry every punt and kickoff.

First down, ideally, is Leinart's down. There's less double-coverage then and less heat on passers. On first down, he should throw almost every time.

Second down should belong to Bush. Because of defensive tendencies, it offers the widest selection of running plays.

The defenses that Leinart and Bush will encounter in the NFL and the Orange Bowl feast on first-down runners and on third-down passers. Why give them that glory? Trojan offensive coordinator Norm Chow's play design promises success to any good players getting smart play selection.




Lovie Smith May Have It All Now

THE CHICAGO BEARS are back in business if — as seems possible now — Lovie Smith has finally found a quarterback: one Chad Hutchinson. When Smith came to the Bears this year as their new head coach after doing the impossible in St. Louis, giving the Rams a defense, he did the same in Chicago, restoring the Bear defense to respectability. He also settled down Chicago's special teams. But on offense, one Bear quarterback after another has been hurt or faltered or failed. No more.

Hutchinson might not be Chicago's final answer — he might not even be the answer this week in Jacksonville — but he was clearly the answer in the Minnesota game Sunday, shooting down the Vikings with three touchdown passes, 24-14, and proving to Chicagoland that when Lovie Smith has a quarterback, he has a winner.

Skeptics noted instantly that all three touchdowns were thrown on third down, meaning that Hutchinson was mostly capitalizing on Minnesota's inept defense. (The NFL's good defensive teams with their blitzers and tight coverages own third down.) Versus the Vikings, with the game on the line, Hutchinson converted 10 of his first 16 third-down chances, meaning, among other things, that Coach Smith didn't trust him to throw on first or second down. But if he's for real, Smith will.

There was a time in Dallas when Hutchinson was going to be the Cowboys' savior, their new Roger Staubach. Yet he was a baseball pitcher, too, and the St. Louis Cardinals gave him a chance. In time, so did the Cowboy football team, for one unhappy season. He also played football in Europe. When the Bears called, Hutchinson had matured, and Lovie Smith finally had a complete team — for one game at least.




Is Atlanta's Vick Enough Quarterback?

THE ATLANTA FALCONS will get their second of five chances to clinch a division title this week when the Oakland Raiders come to town. But though the 9-3 Atlanta team owns the NFC South's sole winning record, it has the look of a team that will lose its first playoff start next month — to anybody.

The Falcon problem is that Michael Vick has furnished little evidence that he's an instinctively sound quarterback. In a 27-0 loss to division-rival Tampa Bay Sunday, Vick showed again that he can be lit up in the pocket by pass rushers. He's too small — in particular, he is too short — and he has a vision problem along with an accuracy problem and a confidence problem passing.

His strong arm and his great footspeed — he is by far the swiftest of today's quarterbacks — often seem to cover up his deficiencies, but they're always there. For instance, on the Tampa goal line Sunday, Vick threw two interceptions — throwing on either first or second down. Despite the fact that NFL interceptions are wildly overrated, getting so much weight in the league's passer ratings that they distort the record, a good passer knows better instinctively than to take a chance on an early-down, goal-line interception.

Unless he's losing in the fourth quarter on third or fourth down, an instinctively alert passer won't let the ball go toward an end-zone receiver unless his man is clearly open.

The Falcons seem to be one of the NFC's two standout teams, but in reality there's only one, Philadelphia. The 15 others — along with half of all AFC teams — are so closely matched that they're providing Las Vegas with more dead-even propositions every week than you'd see if two dozen strangers were flipping coins.




Running Back Wins Shootout

THE DALLAS COWBOYS used a running back to win a strange 43-39 shootout in Seattle Monday night when rookie Julius Jones ran the last 17 of his 198 yards to score in the last half minute. That took care of the Seahawks, who, it's beginning to seem, can never win games like this. Although Jones had tipped his hand with a 150-yard nationally televised performance on Thanksgiving Day, that was before the Chicago Bears had come together as a competitive football team.

So the question remains: Is Jones the sensation he seems to be? Or will he fall back to earth when the NFL's legions of defensive wizards have had a chance to examine him closely? The history of pro football suggests that Jones, a 217-pound, second-round draft choice last April from Notre Dame and Big Stone Gap, Va., will level off.