MONTGOMERY, Ala. — He will not let himself think about it this morning during the hourlong bus trip to Auburn, but USC quarterback Matt Leinart intends to acknowledge its presence a few hours after the Trojans arrive.
When eighth-ranked USC charges onto the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium for today's season opener against sixth-ranked Auburn, Leinart plans to momentarily take in the noise and pageantry created by more than 86,000 Tiger-crazed fans.
"I'll look around a little bit because it's impossible to ignore," said Leinart, a 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore starting for the first time in a college football game. "But then you just block it out. You just have to come back and get focused and play."
Leinart also hopes to deal quickly with another detail. The former standout at Santa Ana Mater Dei High has never thrown, let alone completed, a pass in a college game. Reaching both mini-milestones during the Trojans' first offensive series is one of his goals.
"It's definitely going to set the tone for the offense and the game," he said of the first series. "We just have to go out there and move the ball and kind of get our confidence up."
Last year, USC put itself on track for one of its most successful seasons in decades by defeating Auburn, 24-17, at the Coliseum. But today's task could be far more difficult as the Trojans try to extend an eight-game winning streak.
Leinart, who replaces Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, is the centerpiece of a new backfield that includes sophomore tailback Hershel Dennis and freshman backups Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Chauncey Washington.
Leinart will operate against a defense that features senior linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas, who anchor one of the nation's best front sevens.
If the Tigers have a weakness, it might be in the secondary. Junior Rosegreen, who played safety last season and intercepted a pass against USC, has been moved to cornerback. Safeties Karibi Dede and Donnay Young will start for the first time and try to slow a Trojan passing game that features senior flanker Keary Colbert, sophomore split end Mike Williams and freshman wide receiver Steve Smith.
"They've shuffled their safeties and corners to try and find the right mix, but if you ever had to develop a young secondary, you would want to do it with a front seven like they have," USC Coach Pete Carroll said.
USC, which has won five consecutive season openers, features one of the nation's best defensive lines and front seven. But that is not expected to stop Coach Tommy Tuberville from going right at it with a deep and experienced running back corps that includes Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, Ronnie Brown, Tre Smith and Brandon Jacobs.
Williams rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown in the first half against USC last season before he was slowed by cramps. Earlier this week, Carroll said Williams was the best back the Trojans faced last year.
Auburn's running game is expected to help junior quarterback Jason Campbell, who started the final six games last season and threw for 1,215 yards and 11 touchdowns with five interceptions.
"They're pretty solid all the way around," USC linebacker Melvin Simmons said. "You have to pay attention to the run because that's their strength. But you can't ignore their passing game. We're going to have to work hard to stop all of it."
Last season, USC and Auburn were tied, 14-14, at halftime, but Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow deftly adjusted at the break. The Trojans dominated possession in the second half, shut down the Tigers' running game, and won with a late fourth-quarter drive that Palmer finished with a sneak into the end zone.
Today, a fight to the finish might favor Auburn. Thundershowers are possible, and temperatures are expected to be in the high 80s with a lot of humidity.
USC players and coaches maintained throughout training camp that muggy weather would not be a factor, but Auburn, which has won 12 consecutive nonconference games at home, is far more accustomed to the conditions.
"We had some tremendously hot days during training camp and I think that helped us prepare," Carroll said. "As long as the temperature and humidity is the same on both sides of the field, then I'm OK.... We are really trying not to make a big deal of it."