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Rose Bowl offers Spartan-Trojan rematch; picking a champion

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 1987

Part of the appeal of bowl games is the opportunity they provide for teams to face new or rarely-played opponents. Occasionally, however, bowls wind up as rematches of regular-season games. This can happen either because the organizers opt to go this route, as occurred when Oklahoma and Nebraska met in the 1979 Orange Bowl, or because a bowl's formula makes it inevitable, as is the case with the upcoming Rose Bowl. The folks in Pasadena are locked into pitting the Big Ten and Pac-10 conference champions, which this time means that season-opening opponents Michigan State and Southern Cal will confront one another again on New Year's Day.

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There's a sense of freshness about this rematch, though, partly because nearly four months will have passed between the time they last met on Labor Day evening and Jan. 1. Michigan State won the nationally televised Sept. 7 game in East Lansing, 27-13, but Southern Cal, under new coach Larry Smith, didn't really hit its stride until mid-season.

Both teams are better now, and given the different locale and the Big Ten's traditional difficulties in Pasadena, it's very hard to predict what might happen. Ignore the Spartans' earlier victory and higher ranking and rate this one a ``toss-up.''

The Trojans, of course, don't lack for incentive, since they dedicated themselves to getting to the Rose Bowl for a hoped-for second chance at Michigan State.

By succeeding, the teams have set the stage for only the fifth Tournament of Roses rematch. Previously there have been two sweeps, Iowa beating Oregon State twice during the 1956 season and UCLA turning the trick against Michigan in 1982. A pair of split-decisions both involved UCLA, which upset Michigan State to conclude its 1965 campaign and Ohio State at the tail end of the '75 season.

Southern Cal has to feel confident about turning the tables this time, not only because USC has won 17 of its last 18 meetings with Big Ten opponents, but also because of the Pac 10's success in recent Rose Bowls, which rivals the the National League's dominance in baseball's All-Star Game.

The West Coast team has won with such regularity (16 times in the last 18 years) that many speculative reasons have been put forth. Perhaps the most extensive attempt to list possible explanations was carried in the preseason issue of Inside Sports magazine. The theories attributed the Big Ten's struggles to:

The myriad distractions found in Calfornia

The former conservatism of Big Ten offenses

The Rose Bowl's natural grass field

The weather, both in the Midwest, where freezing temperatures discourage outdoor practices, and in California, where beautiful days make it difficult to concentrate on football

Too much time away from home

And the Ohio State-Michigan theory, which claims that whenever one of these teams goes to the Rose Bowl, it experiences emotional burnout after playing its rival in the final regular-season game.

The bottom line is that the Big Ten teams don't seem to believe in themselves - at least not for a full 60 minutes. This has, of course, become the chief hurdle, and the one that could most challenge Michigan State in its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1966.

One person who hopes he's on the right sideline this time is the Trojan head coach. Smith visited the Rose Bowl twice before, following the 1969 and '71 seasons, as an assistant under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. The Wolverines lost both times.