Tradition remained intact Sunday when the Rose Bowl opted for a matchup between teams from the Pacific 10 and Big Ten conferences.
But other factors were in play -- or in Georgia’s case, not in play -- when the Rose Bowl brokered the New Year’s Day date between USC and Illinois.
Under Bowl Championship Series rules, with Southeastern Conference champion Louisiana State staying close to home to play Big Ten champion Ohio State in the BCS title game in New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl retained control of SEC-member Georgia.
That arrangement effectively nixed any chance of the 10-2 Trojans, who were seventh in the final BCS standings, playing 10-2 Georgia, which finished fifth. The Rose Bowl could have asked the Sugar Bowl for consent to take Georgia but never did, said BCS Coordinator Mike Slive, who is also the SEC commissioner.
The Rose Bowl considered Boston College (10-3), West Virginia (10-2), Kansas (11-1), Missouri (11-2), Hawaii (12-0) and Illinois (9-3) before choosing to remain with tradition, Rose Bowl Chief Executive Mitch Dorger said.
Like USC, Illinois finished its season with a four-game winning streak. A 28-21 victory over then-top-ranked Ohio State in the Fighting Illini’s second-to-last game Nov. 10 aided their bid for a Rose Bowl berth. Dorger said, “The way Illinois ended their season on the up note, beating the No. 1 team at the time,” helped put the Illini in Pasadena for the first time since 1984.
The choice was fine with USC Coach Pete Carroll.
“I like, frankly, that it’s Pac-10-Big Ten,” said Carroll, who guided the Trojans to a sixth consecutive Pac-10 title and also a sixth straight BCS bowl game appearance. “That’s cool that that’s the way it came off. I think that’s kind of what we all know the Rose Bowl to be.”
Carroll and several Trojans players acknowledged that they had gone to bed after Saturday’s 24-7 victory over UCLA believing that the crazy end to what has been a crazy college football season left them with a slim chance to wind up in the championship game.
Top-ranked Missouri and second-ranked West Virginia suffered defeats Saturday night, setting the stage for Sunday’s poll shuffling and BCS-computer intrigue.
“It was fun thinking about the possibilities while the games were still being played and all that,” Carroll said.
With Louisiana State winning the SEC title game against Tennessee, and Ohio State and Georgia already finished with their seasons, some players anticipated the movement that put Louisiana State and Ohio State in the BCS title game.
Junior end Kyle Moore, a Georgia native, said he was on the phone with friends who play for Georgia.
“I would have loved to play my hometown team,” Moore said. “But after 1 and 2 went down and LSU got in, that just messed it up.”
So, for the fourth time in five years and the third year in a row, the Trojans stay home and play in the Rose Bowl.
“We’re not ever going to get out of L.A.” Moore joked. “They say they’re going to change [bowl week activities] up this year. That’s OK with us.”
Illinois, under third-year Coach Ron Zook, lost to Missouri, Iowa and Michigan.
Sophomore quarterback “Juice” Williams, who has passed for 13 touchdowns and run for seven, leads the Illini. Dual-threat quarterbacks have given USC problems through the years, most recently Oregon’s Dennis Dixon.
“We lost to Oregon with a running quarterback,” Moore said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Junior running back Rashard Mendenhall averages 127 yards rushing per game and has scored 18 touchdowns for Illinois. Freshman receiver Arrelious Benn has caught 49 passes and has 158 yards in 32 carries. Senior linebacker J Leman averages more than 10 tackles per game.
“They’ve got all kinds of guys and they’ve had a huge year and a big upswing in their momentum,” Carroll said. “They’ve done a lot of great things and so they’ll come in here raring to go.”
USC center Matt Spanos is eager to play the Illini. Spanos was born in Illinois and still has family there.
“I want to see the team that beat Ohio State,” Spanos said.
Carroll said he was disappointed for Arizona State, which was left out of the BCS mix, and reiterated that he would like to see a playoff system for college football.
“This is a finish to the season that is worthy of that discussion being taken to the nth degree,” he said, “and there’s a lot of fans and schools that would see it that way.”
Times staff writer Chris Dufresne contributed to this report.