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Top-Ranked USC in for Devil of a Time?

Put aside all records, rankings and third-down conversion ratios: The key to USC’s defeating Arizona State on Saturday may come down to where the visiting fans park.

This was a rallying-cry issue in 1996, when college football’s last want-to-be dynasty, Nebraska, barnstormed into Tempe.

Bruce Snyder remembers as if it were last Tuesday.

He was Arizona State’s coach, riding the bus into his own lot -- ASU administration and staff only! -- only to discover that Nebraska fans had turned VIP parking into a Cornhusker tailgate party.

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A few Sun Devils, led by linebacker Pat Tillman -- yes, that Pat Tillman -- had to be restrained from diving head-first into the potato salad.

“I’ve never had a team stand up in the middle aisle like that, just yelling and screaming,” Snyder recalled this week.

Arizona State shut out No. 1 Nebraska that night, 19-0, and started a Jake Plummer-led run that ended with a heartbreak defeat to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

Consider the similarities between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 1 USC:

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* Nebraska was seeking to become the first school to win three national titles in a row.

So is USC.

* Nebraska came in with a 26-game winning streak.

USC has won 25 in a row.

* Arizona State was ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press poll.

Arizona State is No. 14.

* The year before, Nebraska routed Arizona State in Lincoln, 77-28.

Last year, USC routed Arizona State in Los Angeles, 45-7.

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* The week after it beat Nebraska, Arizona State played Oregon.

Next week, Arizona State plays Oregon.

* Nebraska was coached by Tom Osborne.

Arizona State has an assistant named Tom Osborne, no relation.

“The parallels,” Snyder said, “are eerie.”

Of course, it’s going to take more than coincidence and precedent for Arizona State to pull off the upset this time.

Nebraska, like USC, was the dominant team of its era. The Cornhuskers finished 11-2 in 1996, then won a share of the 1997 national title, the team’s third in four years.

“I think this USC team is better than that Nebraska team,” Snyder said. “But ... anything can happen.”

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Sam Keller, the quarterback leading Arizona State against USC, says the events of 1996 are “irrelevant” in terms of winning Saturday.

There are, however, valuable psychological lessons to be culled.

Juan Roque, the star offensive tackle on the 1996 ASU team, remembers the key to beating Nebraska that year was not getting caught up in the hype.

Now a high school football coach in Michigan, Roque recalled in a phone interview that his team “let go of the mystique” that Nebraska brought into Tempe.

“We didn’t play the game not to be embarrassed,” Roque said. “We played the game to win.”

Keller says that was part of the problem last year when the Sun Devils went into the Coliseum on the defensive -- and got hammered by USC.

Arizona State was 5-0 at the time, and thought too much ahead of the “top of the world” status that would have come with 6-0.

“That wasn’t us out there,” said Keller, who was backup to Andrew Walter. “That was not ASU football whatsoever. We were worried too much about beating them rather than just playing them.”

Roque and other former Sun Devils will be hoping for a repeat of 1996.

“If I was on that team, I’d be frothing at the mouth to play USC,” Roque said. “Games like this make heroes. Games like this will be remembered 10, 15 years down the road. Why not this year? Someone will eventually beat them. They can’t win 100 in a row, right? No one’s ever done that.

“It might as well be ASU on Saturday.”

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Paging Columbo

The mystery of how 0-4 Idaho received five points in the first Harris poll may never be solved.

The Harris people are standing by the validity of their survey process, and bowl championship series officials have granted anonymity to every poll release except the final one.

BCS spokesman Bob Burda said he was satisfied that it was one pollster who voted Idaho No. 21, accounting for the five points, and not five members voting Idaho at No. 25.

Points are attached to all rankings, with the first-place team getting 25 points and No. 25 getting one point.

Asked to explain the Idaho situation, Burda said, “I don’t know if it can be explained, because it is an opinion poll. I don’t know if that’s someone’s opinion or honest mistake.”

The Harris poll replaces the Associated Press in this year’s BCS formula, which determines which teams will play in the Jan. 4 Rose Bowl for the national title.

AP pulled out after a fiasco that jumped Texas over California, sparking the biggest controversy in the BCS’s seven-year history.

In terms of credibility, AP has more checks in place than Harris, red-flagging any ballot that includes a team with a losing record.

Harris demands only that each voter verify his ballot.

Burda said Harris’ top 25 was essentially in line with the AP poll and the USA Today coaches’ survey, and he says he thinks the Idaho blip is an aberration that will correct itself.

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Hokie Nation

Virginia Tech has the mean, lean look of the 1999 team that made a run to the BCS title game before losing a thriller to Florida State. The Hokies have a stifling defense (giving up only 5.8 points a game), Frank Beamer at coach and a Vick playing quarterback (Michael’s brother Marcus).

Chew on this: Should USC, Texas and Virginia Tech all win out, there is a decent chance Virginia Tech could overtake No. 2 Texas in the BCS standings based on wins against higher-ranked teams.

If Virginia Tech gets to 12-0, it will have defeated No. 21 Boston College, No. 9 Miami and possibly No. 6 Florida State in the first Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

Texas has only one currently ranked opponent -- No. 16 Texas Tech -- left on its regular-season schedule.

It would be ironic if Texas, which lobbied so vehemently last year for its Rose Bowl bid, got pushed out of Pasadena with a much bigger prize at stake: the BCS title.

Some folks in Berkeley might even call it justice.

Virginia Tech, though, can’t afford to look ahead. Two years ago, the Hokies were also ranked No. 3 when they visited West Virginia and lost, 28-7.

Virginia Tech plays at West Virginia on Saturday.

“We had a good football team the last time we came to Morgantown,” Beamer warned. “And we got whacked upside the head.”

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Hurry-Up Offense

* This figures to be a tough week for a few undefeated teams. Indiana, Minnesota, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State play road games at Wisconsin, Penn State, Texas A&M;, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Unbeaten Florida also plays at undefeated Alabama.

* BCS commissioners can rest easy about a non-BCS team such as Utah taking a big-money, at-large bowl spot away from one of their member schools. Every school ranked in the top 25 of the three major polls -- AP, coaches, Harris -- is either Notre Dame or hails from a major conference. This is the last year in which a non-BCS team earns an automatic bid with a No. 6 ranking or higher. Next year, with the addition of a “fifth” BCS game, a non-BCS school qualifies with a top-12 ranking.

* Tulane, which was uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, leads the nation in total defense, giving up only 352 total yards in two games.

* David Worlock, assistant director of statistics for the NCAA, reports that Saturday’s game between Washington and UCLA pitting Tyrone Willingham against Karl Dorrell will mark only the 12th time two African American head coaches have faced each other in a Division I-A game. It is the first meeting of black coaches since Willingham, then at Notre Dame, faced Michigan State’s Bobby Williams on Sept. 21, 2002.

* Four of the nation’s top 11 passers are from the Pacific 10 Conference: Matt Leinart (No. 2, USC), Drew Olson (No. 6, UCLA), Keller (No. 7, Arizona State) and Alex Brink (No. 11, Washington State). They have totaled 41 touchdown passes and six interceptions.


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