Great expectations were in the air last year when USC and Illinois opened the college football season at Champaign, Ill., in a game that had national significance.
The Trojans were a top 10 team and the consensus choice to retain their Pacific 10 championship.
The Illini were also highly touted, having been picked by one publication as the nation's No. 1 team.
There was speculation that the schools would meet again at the end of the season--in the Rose Bowl, of course, as Pacific 10 and Big Ten champions.
USC won, 20-10, enhancing its early-season reputation. Then, both schools disappeared from the national scene as they struggled through disappointing seasons.
The Trojans finished with a 6-6 record, and the Illini settled for 6-5-1.
Now, they meet again today at the Coliseum at 4 p.m. Please, hold the trumpets and drum roll.
Neither team is among the nation's top 20 teams this year, and neither is getting much backing as a contender in its own conference.
USC Coach Ted Tollner, however, regards his team as a solid contender.
The positive signs he sees:
--A healthy Rodney Peete. A mobile quarterback, he has apparently recovered from a torn Achilles' tendon suffered in last December's 24-3 Aloha Bowl loss to Alabama.
--The maturity of tailbacks Ryan Knight and Aaron Emanuel, who will alternate at the position today.
--A defensive unit that is experienced in 7 of the 11 positions, the linebackers and secondary.
The question marks are an inexperienced defensive line, the weak side of the offensive line and, perhaps, the receiving corps.
Illinois is not getting the attention it did last season, when it had quarterback Jack Trudeau, All-American wide receiver David Williams and fullback Thomas Rooks.
Illinois opened its season last Saturday by defeating Louisville, 23-0, which didn't prove much, considering that the Cardinals didn't beat a decent team all last year and are still rebuilding.
Illinois Coach Mike White is trying to change his team's image, emphasizing the physical aspects.
White wants the Illini to be more productive as a running team. Tollner wants the Trojans to be more efficient in their passing game. Talk about role reversals.
No, USC isn't abandoning its traditional power I offense, but Tollner is diversifying his offense this season with a split-backs formation that is better suited to passing than the I.
It may come as a shock to traditionalists who expect USC to routinely pound away on the ground as the Trojans have done since the Thundering Herd days of Howard Jones in the '20s and '30s.
"We want to be a power football team, but to be more productive than we were in 1985," Tollner said. "We have to have a better passing game. In evaluating our team, we have said that we must be less predictable on offense.
"Now, if we could just line up and pound people out while throwing only one pass, we'd do it because that's the safest way to win football games. But we just can't line up and blow people off the line of scrimmage (anymore).
"Looking at the teams we have to beat, we don't have enough mismatches up front. We can't dominate the line of scrimmage every down without some diversion, or without putting some doubt in our opponents' minds of what we're going to do."
Peete, who started the last four games in 1985, is a different type of USC quarterback, one who can scramble and throw on the run.
"I think Rodney Peete is as ready to play as you can expect a guy to be coming off a serious injury," Tollner said. "The real difference is his confidence because he played at the end of last year against difficult opponents and in difficult places. I think we potentially have a very exciting quarterback."
As for his tailbacks--Knight, a junior, and Emanuel, a sophomore--Tollner said: "I haven't seen either tailback more healthy or ready to play than they are now. They've gone through that freshman/sophomore lack of understanding phase, or whatever it takes to become a top back. I think they're ready for that next step now."
It was a rather placid summer for Tollner, but White had to put up with questions on why he invited only 80 players to his preseason summer camp, leaving about two dozen others in limbo. He tried to put the matter to rest recently when he said:
"You don't have many players who have a bad attitude on the practice field. That's the fun part of it. The problem is off-the-field attitudes. So many coaches--and I'm one--give lip service to academics, drugs, campus image and physical conditioning.
"I find it's pretty darn hard for 18-, 19-, or 20-year-olds to fully concentrate on each one of those areas, so we decided to tighten it down a little bit. If we didn't like the attitude in any of the areas, we just let them know where they stood. We did eliminate some kids, temporarily, who didn't display the right attitude.
"Pleasingly, though, most all of those kids are back. That means the system is going in the right direction. The only players not with us are gone for academic reasons."