Heisman-to-Heisman call paved way for statuesque encounter

The year 1999 is a forgettable one at both Ohio State and USC. The Buckeyes and Trojans each went 6-6. Ohio State lost to Michigan, USC to Notre Dame. But there is one event in that transcontinental ode to mediocrity for which every college football fan should be thankful. In 1999, Ohio State and USC agreed to play this Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

You think much has changed? USC is No. 1 for the second consecutive week and the 83rd week in its storied history. That is fourth-most in history. Tied for second, with 86 weeks, are Oklahoma and, yep, Ohio State. In the eight seasons after 1999, USC and Ohio State won all or part of three national championships and lost three others in the BCS National Championship Game. They combined to win four Heisman Trophies.

And they have done all of this without playing each other.

That's why the game between No. 1 USC and No. 5 Ohio State has attracted so much attention. On Wednesday afternoon, StubHub declared this game the best-selling regular-season game since it went into business in 2000, with an average ticket price greater than $400 and ticket buyers in 45 states.

Those who manage to get tickets will arrive at the storied Coliseum with more than the typical intrigue of seeing two top-five teams play. The hope enjoyed by Ohio State fans early in the week when junior tailback Beanie Wells practiced with the team is all but dissipated. Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said Tuesday that he wanted to see how Wells' injured big toe on his right foot weathered the workout. Tressel used the term "lingering soreness." By Thursday morning, Wells could not practice.

That means the questions that arose because of Ohio State's struggle to subdue Ohio last week are waiting for an answer. Did this offense sputter because the team looked past the Bobcats? Or did it sputter because it missed Wells?

There's also the question of how Tressel will use his quarterbacks, fifth-year senior Todd Boeckman and freshman Terrelle Pryor. Boeckman, 13-2 as a starter, has played only one team ranked in the top 20. That would be LSU in the BCS Championship Game, in which Boeckman went 15-of-26 for 208 yards, with two interceptions and two touchdowns, the second of which came in garbage time.

Pryor, the most-coveted recruit in the nation in February, is expected to be the second coming of Vince Young. But he has played little in two games. For him to play a big role in a game of this magnitude, his first collegiate game on the road, would be unprecedented.

USC has parried fewer doubts after its 52-7 victory over Virginia two weeks ago to open the season. Junior Mark Sanchez completed 26 of 35 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. Still, it must be pointed out that this is only his fifth start. The only other game Sanchez started against a ranked team ended in a 24-17 loss at No. 5 Oregon last season.

The biggest question that this game will answer is the most basic: Is either, or both, of these teams of national championship caliber? Tressel took a stab at slowing down the onrushing train of anticipation.

"I think the reality is that we have to keep in mind is that no matter what occurs, it's September," Tressel said this week. "And there's a whole lot of football after September. But that doesn't diminish the excitement about playing a game like this."

Tressel, as a purist, declared he enjoyed watching USC on video.

"Everyone talks about their great athletes," Tressel said. "What's impressive to me is how well they do things. They play with so much energy and enthusiasm and technique and togetherness. They're a fun group to watch."

Those are the hallmarks of a well-coached team, and those are attributes often attributed to the Buckeyes, as well.

"It's an incredible team," USC coach Pete Carroll said this week of the Trojans' opponent. "They've got everybody that played for them last year playing again. They've got a great history. They've got great leadership. They've got impact, extraordinary players in all phases of their team. It makes for an unbelievable opportunity for us and a challenge for us to see if we can get a win here at the Coliseum."

For having this game at all, we have Archie Griffin to thank. In 1999, Griffin served as an assistant athletic director at Ohio State and worked on the football scheduling. USC and Ohio State played in three Rose Bowls in Griffin's four seasons at Ohio State (1972-75). USC won two of them, including the 1975 Rose Bowl, 18-17, for a share of the national championship.

Griffin made the call to USC, where athletic director Mike Garrett had more in common with Griffin than a Heisman Trophy. Both programs believe in scheduling one difficult nonconference game a season.

The Trojans that Griffin called in 1999 stood in Year 4 of a trudge through mediocrity. Griffin could claim to be a victim of a bait-and-switch: The USC he signed up to play, the team that went 37-35 from 1996 to 2001, has been removed from the shelves. In its place is a USC that followed those six seasons of win-one-lose-one with six seasons of a combined 70-8.

"Not at all," Griffin, now the director of the Ohio State Alumni Association, said about the Buckeyes' getting more than they signed up for. "We played in the '80s (1989-90), and they beat us both times."

Griffin said that when he made the deal, he expected Ohio State would face the talent and tradition for which the Trojans are known. It goes without saying he expected it from the Buckeyes, too.

Two seasons later, Tressel took over. And in its past six seasons, Ohio State has gone 66-11.

On Saturday night, these two rocks upon which so much college football history is built will play. It is time to rejoin the battle.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.