COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The old football coach flashes a look of incredulity, wincing, like you just don't understood.
So you try again: Is the USC game really that important to Ohio State fans?
"What are you talking about?" Earle Bruce says. "We know what this game means."
The former Buckeyes coach still lives in Columbus and hears the buzz around town, the talk that started months ago. The early schedule -- Youngstown State last week and Ohio today -- seems incidental.
"It's almost like, let's get through these first two weeks and get to Week 3," said Matt McCoy, sports director at local radio station WTVN. "That game's been circled for a long time."
No. 1 versus No. 3. Pac-10 versus Big Ten.
By numbers alone, next Saturday's USC-Ohio State matchup at the Coliseum looks like the game of the season, but numbers explain only part of the hype. You have to understand what football means to fans in this city by the Olentangy River.
"I mean, it's everything," said Buckeyes kicker Ryan Pretorius, a transplanted South African who has come to know the ways of the scarlet and gray. "It's a part of their life. Come Saturday, it's what everyone in Ohio does."
Add to this fervor a hunger for redemption.
The Buckeyes faithful have heard rumblings from around the college football world. Their team doesn't play a tough enough nonconference schedule. The Big Ten isn't what it used to be.
They know what outsiders think of Ohio State's two consecutive trips to the national championship game and two blowout losses to Southeastern Conference opponents.
"Everyone's talking about how we can't win," says Matt Lucas, who owns a fan shop a few blocks from Ohio Stadium. "How we can't beat the good teams."
USC offers a chance to prove the naysayers wrong.
Earlier this summer, none other than Carson Palmer -- the former Trojan and current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback -- stoked the fires with blunt comments on a Los Angeles radio show.
"I cannot stand the Buckeyes and having to live in Ohio and hear those people talk about their team, it drives me absolutely nuts," he told KLAC, adding: "I just can't wait for this game to get here so they can come out to the Coliseum and experience L.A. and get an old-fashioned, Pac-10 butt-whupping."
Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel stood up for Palmer, saying he clearly loves his alma mater, but the good people of Columbus were not so forgiving. As radio director McCoy explained: "He took it to another level."
The thing is, Palmer made a good point. This isn't just a game, it's a clash of cultures. Football cultures.
It's Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg hanging around the Trojans while the Buckeyes get an occasional visit from the country band Rascal Flatts.
It's Pete Carroll tossing footballs around Howard Jones Field versus Tressel in his proper spectacles and sweater vest. (Local stores sell merchandise bearing the logo "Fear the Vest.")
It's USC inviting the whole world to practice while the Buckeyes train in secret, sending a select few players outside to speak with reporters afterward.
"I don't know if I'd like the media all around," Ohio State tight end Rory Nicol said. "The more people who come in from the outside, the more chance you have of being influenced."
Reporters and cameramen swarmed the Buckeyes' modern football complex this week, looking for any information that might leak out regarding tailback Chris Wells and his much-publicized right foot.
Was it the sole of his foot? The toe? Did it hurt or was it merely sore? Just as important, would he recover by Sept. 13?
"Everyone asks about him," linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "You get people who have said, 'Just tell him to sit out and wait till USC.' "
Though the Buckeyes spent the week preparing for Ohio, there was no keeping the Trojans out of the conversation.
Radio talk shows buzzed and the local newspaper ran daily reports. The hottest-selling item at Lucas' store was a red T-shirt bearing the words: "Beat USC."
Even the players, supposedly focused on the task at hand, found themselves evaluating the Trojans' performance against Virginia. Tressel mused about the challenge of not looking ahead.
"We'd all be lying if we didn't talk about being excited about Southern Cal," he said.
It made perfect sense to Bruce. The old coach, who hosts a weekly call-in show on the radio, went so far as to compare next weekend's game to the blood feud with Michigan.
"We're playing U-S-C," he said. "This is serious business."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Some numbers from USC's football history vs. Ohio State:
Record vs. Ohio State: 11-9-1
At home: 4-2-1
On road: 3-4
Neutral site (Rose Bowl): 4-3
Last (1990 on road): USC, 35-26
First (1937 at home): USC, 13-12
Source: USC media guide
Sept. 13 at the Coliseum,
5 p.m., Channel 7
Idling: USC players want to stay sharp, but they won't turn down a day off, either. D9
UCLA FYI, D9