PULLMAN – Traveling cross country to play a college football game is no easy task no matter how talented the opposition might be.
Just ask Louisiana State, the nation’s 11th-ranked team. The Tigers struggled last Saturday to subdue a University of Washington team that was coming off a winless season.
Which is why most schools avoid such treks. But that’s not the case with the Pac-10. If the conference schools want to meet national powers, they have to travel, often across three time zones.
USC, of course, does it all the time, or at least every other year, when the Trojans travel to South Bend to face Notre Dame. But in the Pete Carroll era, they’ve added even more, usually playing a home-and-home with a BCS power.
Like eighth-ranked Ohio State, USC’s challenge this weekend.
The Trojans have a chance to make a statement nationally each time they kick it off against such opponents. But that’s not the focus.
“We probably look at it a little differently,” said USC coach Pete Carroll on Tuesday. “The whole BCS conversation has nothing to do with what we’re thinking about. Really, we’re not trying to position ourselves in the best light for the BCS.
“We’re just trying to win conference championships and see what happens after that. … The harder games we can get to earlier in the schedule make us better, improve us, particularly the ones on the road like the one coming up.”
In other words, the BCS is fine, but great nonconference battles should prepare a team for the rigors of the Pac-10 schedule.
Which is the same logic used by Cal’s Jeff Tedford, when the Bears traveled – and lost – to Maryland last year, or Oregon State’s Mike Riley, who traveled – and lost – to Cincinnati a couple years ago, or UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel, whose UCLA Bruins have a long trip into a hostile environment on Saturday: Knoxville, Tennessee.
Of course, having to listen to “Rocky Top” for three hours is something UCLA has endured before.
The Bruins have faced Tennessee often, starting in the 1970s – winning some, losing some. But the experience is what Neuheisel is craving.
“I don’t think making this seem like it’s a mountain we have to climb is the right way,” Neuheisel said of playing before 102,000 in Neyland Stadium. “I’m almost of the mind where we want to congratulate our players that you’re getting a chance to do this. You ought to live it up.”
Of course, there are football applications as well. The Bruins defeated San Diego State at home last Saturday, but the 33-14 win wasn’t the game Neuheisel wanted. Now they have a chance to improve.
“I do believe we can make some progress,” he said, “because we’re going to need it if we are going to be successful this weekend.”
Successful or not, such games prepare teams for conference – and build, hopefully, good memories to draw upon.
“How positive a memory,” Neuheisel admitted, “is going to be up to how well we play.”