Getting back into the conversation

USC fans are back. Now they want their team to be. This weekend will go a long way to telling them, and us, if they are.

ARLINGTON, Tex. -- They're back. USC fans were all over AT&T Stadium Friday. Almost a standoff with Alabama fans who can drive here in a day. Not only that, the folks flashing the "Fight On" signs are coming from a different place than the national champion Crimson Tide.

But they're back this far anyway, No. 17 in the preseason coaches poll, No. 20 in the AP media poll. And back in what really is a bowl atmosphere. Back in the conversation in what is an unprecedented moment.

Back in the feature game on ABC with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit calling it on ABC. Sure, that's because Nick Saban's Alabama team is on the other sideline. This is about the Tide, no question.

But here they all are, in this amazing, unprecedented weekend in Texas where you have USC and Alabama, Oklahoma (at Houston), Notre Dame (at Texas) and UCLA (at Texas A&M). Save for the Bruins, those are four of the top five all-time programs in college football history.

They're all right here. And USC is with them even if on the fringe right now. Which may help explain the way USC fans grabbed up their nearly 18,000-ticket allotment. And why the Dallas Cowboys staff here is calling it the "USC Super Tour" group Friday.

Bo Hilger, Cowboys account executive who oversees these things, said this is "by far the biggest" team tour group ever after having to separate the 230 USC fans into two groups for the early Friday tour, while adding another two later. "We tried something like this last year for Michigan State [at the Cotton Bowl] and got maybe 100," Bo said.

Is USC back?

None of these folks know. But they're hoping. They think it's moving in the right direction. But before the USC fans are finished with their 90-minute tour designed to show off the wonders of Jerry Jones' world -- and there are many -- they're mostly serious about where this is going as they recognize that look on the Tide fans' faces. These USC folks were there a decade ago.

USC fans know how this works. You're not on top forever. No one is. John McKay and Bear Bryant traded places there for a couple of decades. Could an unsanctioned USC team be on the verge of getting back in that mix?

Just asking that question answers it to some degree. As the Trojans team that stopped by for a 12:30 walkthrough Friday found out, they are in the one place -- until the Rams get their new LA stadium in three years -- that's the center of an over-the-top football universe.

They tell you they could put the Statue of Liberty on the 50-yard line and her head wouldn't come within 20 feet of the roof and it looks like they could be right? Or there are 3,500 flat-screen TVs in this place? Or those speakers hanging above the stands? They're as big as 18-wheel tracto-trailers but in this monster of a building, they just look like speakers.

Oh and they don't have to repaint the NFL hash marks and the NFL and Cowboys logos when they switch from an NFL game played here the other night to a college game for one simple reason?

That's because they have two separate fields, one stored somewhere inside this $1.2 billion building. They just take up the NFL turf and put down the college field, sweep it up, turn the fans on to dry it out, get those "Alabama" and "USC" end zones painted and they're good to go.

Now if USC can only be. You realize just how much that's the case when Saban's Tide team arrives for what is literally just a "walkthrough" in suits and ties and blazers that has the Bama players walking slowly from one end of the field to the other. They don't need to practice here in any way. They've been here, done that -- last year in this game.

Even the sight of a solitary Lane Kiffin, staring at his cellphone as he walked the turf at the same time but not exactly with the rest of the Alabama group, inspired mostly giggles among the USC fans. No hate. Just the hope that he eventually does to the Tide what he did for USC -- especially with more than one quarterback to choose from.

But neither Lane nor Alabama is the focus here. USC is. What do you think, Trojans fans want to know. You see them every day. How's this going to go?

This is why you never know. The other team has a big say in this. USC's ability to run the ball behind an offensive line that's big and veteran and getting coached-up still runs head-on into an Alabama front seven that's clearly the best in the country with three players listed No. 1 at their positions for the NFL Draft.

If USC can, we agree with Clay Helton that the world changes for these Trojans. They'll be able to throw it. And play football the way USC has always wanted to play football. It's the exact lift Max Browne needs for his first start.

And this is where the rubber meets the road. Alabama's solid program will not have to get lucky the way USC hopes it has with the late arrival of Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and Khaliel Rodgers to the defensive line.  Bama's guys have been in the pipeline, getting plenty of playing time last year. And now they're ready to go.

Only three of USC's full-time coaches were here a year ago as they find out who they are and what Clay Helton's program can be. And when that day will come.

If it's Saturday, if it's 2003 US-Auburn, these folks will be able to say they were here when . . . . Just as a number of them did Friday. "I was at Auburn," they'll open the conversation and then smile.

In that game, if you remember, USC itself didn't let a first-time starter Matt Leinart, in his fourth season, do too much. They didn't have to. The USC defense didn't let an Auburn team loaded with guys headed to the NFL play. Didn't let them into USC territory more than once, as we recall.

And did so in a very simple way, as then Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville predicted the night before. They played too fast -- and furious -- for the Auburn offense to handle in the opener.

Which is where, if you're a USC fan, you have to hope that this game goes. That Clancy Pendergast has his guys dialed up to the point where they don't allow a mostly new Alabama offense find a comfortable way to get into the game.

Do that and it's a replicatable way to play the rest of the season -- as it was for those 2003 and 2004 USC teams that got it started for the Trojans in the 21st Century.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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