CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Nick Rossi is too young to remember much about the tenure of Pete Carroll as the coach of the New England Patriots.
He remembers the Patriots had a hard time living up to expectations in those days. He was dimly aware that Carroll and his family lived in Medfield, Mass., not too far from his own home in Walpole. But that's about it.
The Boston College defensive lineman has more vivid memories of watching Carroll's Southern Cal football team earn six straight berths in the Bowl Championship Series and produce three Heisman Trophy winners in a four-year span.
"I've never been so excited for a game like this before," Rossi said.
"USC, over the last eight years, has been the team in the country to beat. I'm just really excited to see them play and to play against them."
This isn't exactly the same Southern Cal team the college football world is used to seeing. The Trojans wouldn't be playing in the Emerald Bowl on Dec. 26 if they hadn't lost an uncharacteristic four games this season, including three of their final five.
But that doesn't mean there's no mystique, and it starts at the top.
Carroll followed Bill Parcells as head coach of the Patriots after the Super Bowl in 1997 and won an AFC East title in 1998, guiding the Patriots to the second round of the playoffs. A year later, though, the Patriots lost six of their final eight games and finished 8-8.
Carroll was fired and replaced by Bill Belichick, and promptly built arguably the most accomplished program in college football over the past decade.
"I don't even think about him being the Patriots' head coach," said BC linebacker Mike McLaughlin, a native of Woburn who likewise has only fuzzy memories of Carroll's years in Foxborough. "He's just such a storied and such a followed college head coach. It really doesn't get any bigger than him, other than [Penn State's Joe] Paterno and [Florida State's Bobby] Bowden. As far as this past decade, it doesn't get any bigger than Pete Carroll and USC, that's for sure."
Boston College isn't diving full-throttle into its preparations for the Trojans quite yet. The next week or so mostly is devoted to going over fundamentals, and actually will be more beneficial for some of the younger players who haven't seen many reps all season than for the veterans.
When the Eagles start scouting -- and some already have -- they'll find a team that's as imposing as ever. Southern Cal led the Pac-10 in scoring defense (20.4 points per game) and pass efficiency defense. Opposing quarterbacks completed a conference-low
52.8 percent of their passes this season against a secondary led by future NFL first-round draft pick Taylor Mays.
Quarterback Matt Barkley ranked sixth in the Pac-10 in passing yards per game and led the conference with 12 interceptions. The freshman threw for 380 yards against Notre Dame on Oct. 17, but he hasn't thrown for more than 206 yards in any game since.
"I've already watched three of their games, watched them play Notre Dame, Stanford and Arizona on tape," McLaughlin said. "The thing that comes up the most is them being able to make plays, whether it's the tight end or the three very good running backs, a very athletic offensive line and the freshman quarterback who sometimes looks like he's the best quarterback in the country. They have a number of guys who can make plays and make things happen."
The Eagles have spent Christmas preparing for bowl games in each of the past four seasons. This year's Dec. 26 game is a couple of days earlier than they'd normally play, but they'll happily put up with Christmas morning in San Francisco for a chance to tangle with Carroll and USC.
"It couldn't get any better," McLaughlin said. "This is the best-case scenario, the best way to go out, especially in your last game as a senior, going and playing against a program and a coach like this. It doesn't get any better than that."
Brian MacPherson is a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.