Dream or nightmare?

The living room of the apartment John David Booty shares with another student features a big-screen TV, a wall-sized Bob Marley banner, a couple of unframed prints of ocean scenes and a faux-leather couch and recliner.

None of it belongs to USC's quarterback.

In his sparsely furnished bedroom, a black suitcase serves as a nightstand for a clock-radio and there are piles of folded clothes on the floor.

"I haven't even unpacked," he says.

But one keepsake is unquestionably Booty's — the cardinal-colored blanket covering his bed. Two words are embroidered into the corner of the fabric: Big Dreams.

No doubt, Booty has them. The same phrase is tattooed onto his left arm.

One is to lead USC to the national championship game, but he fell two tipped passes short of that this season.

The first hit the ground at Oregon State, the other was cradled in infamy by a UCLA linebacker in the regular-season finale.

That leaves the Trojans playing Michigan today in the Rose Bowl and Booty facing questions about whether he can win the big one.

"My dad always said, 'Dream big. You can do whatever you want to do,' " Booty said. "That's where I got that, 'Don't listen to what people say you can't do.' Do it."

By any reasonable measure, Booty's first season as the Trojans' starting quarterback was a success.

After sitting behind Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart for three seasons and undergoing back surgery last spring, Booty led the Trojans to 10 victories and a fifth consecutive Pacific 10 Conference title. He completed 62% of his passes, threw for 25 touchdowns with nine interceptions, was voted all-conference by league coaches, and displayed the arm strength and game-management skills of an NFL prospect.

But today, when eighth-ranked USC meets third-ranked Michigan, Booty's immediate future could hang in the balance.

An outstanding performance against the Wolverines could vault him to the forefront of Heisman consideration next season. A victory along with it could propel the Trojans to No. 1 in the 2007 preseason polls and put them in position for a run at a third national title in five years.

And a bad day might leave Booty battling to hold his job.

Redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez, the local kid from the Orange County pipeline that produced Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Leinart, has been waiting in the wings for two seasons. USC coaches promise, as they have since Pete Carroll arrived before the 2001 season, that competition will be open in the spring and fall regardless of a starter's play.

"We've got to figure out who's going to put us in the best situation to win," offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said.

Booty is not worried.

"I'm sure Mark is thinking he's going to take it," Booty said as he sat at a table near the pool in his apartment complex. "And he should, because that's how you have to think, that's what makes you better."

Booty knows the feeling.

USC traveled to Arkansas for its season opener wondering if Booty could perform the same way Leinart did in 2003, when USC won its opener at Auburn.

Booty managed the game well through the first half as USC took a 16-7 lead, then drove the Trojans deep into Razorbacks territory in the third quarter.

On a first down at the 14-yard line, Booty zipped a laser pass to his left into the end zone, placing the ball in the only spot that a diving Patrick Turner could make the catch.


For the first time since he arrived at USC, Booty truly believed, "OK, I can do this." So did Carroll.

"I was thinking, 'Maybe something is going on here,' " the coach recalled.

Later in the quarter, Booty hit tight end Fred Davis with another NFL-type throw at the back of the end zone.

As Booty ran off the field after the play, the Trojans on their way to a 50-14 rout, Carroll stopped him, just as he had greeted Leinart on the sideline during his first start.

"Are you having a good time?" Carroll asked.

"Yeah," Booty said. "This is awesome."

Carroll was convinced.

"That was the first kind of moment when I was thinking, 'He's got it. This is what we were looking for. This could be really something special.' "

It got tougher for Booty.

USC won its next five games but, save for the home opener against Nebraska, did not look very impressive doing so, especially the offense.

Against Arizona State, Booty lost a fumble and had an interception returned for a touchdown in the third quarter. The coaching staff turned exclusively to the rushing attack to win the game.

An off week followed and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian sat down with Booty, just as he had the previous season with Leinart. Coaches consider Booty's even-keeled demeanor one of his best attributes. But Sarkisian wanted emotion.

"These guys need to feel you as a person," the coach said. "They need to feel you in the huddle. Be more demanding…."

Booty showed it the next week at Oregon State when he rallied the Trojans from a 23-point third-quarter deficit. USC pulled to within 33-31 on a touchdown pass in the final seconds. But Oregon State batted away Booty's two-point conversion pass to Dwayne Jarrett.

Booty regrouped and played well in the next four games. On a fourth-down, fourth-quarter play against California, he took a big step, looking off two short-yardage receivers before throwing a long spiral to flanker Steve Smith for a touchdown.

"He was right out of the playbook," Kiffin recalled.

Then came the 13-9 upset loss to UCLA.

Just as they were at Oregon State, the Trojans were poised to stave off defeat when UCLA's Eric McNeal leaped, tipped Booty's pass, and caught the ball as he fell to the turf.

"I never thought, 'Not again!' Booty said.

Then he shook his head at the memory.

"I was just, 'No way. No way!"

Booty is eager to put the UCLA game behind.

The Rose Bowl is the first game of the new year, the first game of the rest of his career.

Last week, Booty stood alone beneath the goal post at the far end of USC's Howard Jones Field counting the minutes before practice began.

More than three weeks had passed since the stunning loss to the Bruins. The Rose Bowl was only a few days away.

As teammates came through the gate and trotted onto the field, they gazed toward the end zone and the solitary figure in the yellow No. 10 jersey.

Booty appeared deep in thought, helmet already on, jaw set, chinstrap buckled.

Near midfield, a few linemen approached Sarkisian.

"Jeez," murmured tackle Sam Baker, tipping his head toward Booty. "J.D. is really focused for this one."

Sarkisian, following Baker's eyes to the end zone, grinned.

"You know what?" the coach said, "He's got a little something to prove."

Still dreaming big.