The 2000s are known to USC fans as the “Decade of Dominance”, for the way that Pete Carroll and the Trojans waxed opponents like it was nobody’s business. From 2000-2010 USC won four Rose Bowls, one Orange Bowl, two national titles, three* Heismans, and at least a share of seven straight conference titles. The 2002 season foreshadowed the epic run that USC would go on, but it was really one particular game in the 2003 season that showed the nation that the Trojans were playin’ no games.
USC vs. Auburn: The Beginning Of An Era
On August 30, the No. 8 Trojans paid a visit to the No. 6 Auburn Tigers in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Heisman trophy winner Carson Palmer had departed for the NFL, so newly-appointed starting quarterback Matt Leinart was tasked with leading his team to a victory deep in SEC country, in front of more than 86,000 people. Tommy Tuberville and his squad were slated to win the SEC that year and possibly go on a title run, so this would be no walk in the park. Some would have faltered under the pressure, but Leinart ushered in his era of Trojan football with a dominating defeat of the Tigers.
The Trojans turned the ball over on their opening drive, making it seem like it was going to be a long day for Pete Carroll and his team. However, they regained composure and Leinart quickly went about setting up the Trojans to score two touchdowns and a field goal. He would pass for 192 yards and one touchdown in his debut, a sign of good things to come in his career with Troy.
Defensively, the Trojans just suffocated this Tiger offense. Auburn—having garnered their first preseason Top 10 ranking since 1995—just couldn’t get anything moving against the wall of Troy. They never moved past SC’s 33-yard line and the Trojans nearly doubled their total yards, 314-164. Heralded tailbacks Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown didn’t look like much against this Trojan defense, who held Auburn to just 43 rushing yards on 36 carries.
USC would go on to win 23-0, shutting out Auburn at home for the first time since 1998. Leinart—who had not thrown a single pass the previous season while backing up Palmer—looked ready to lead this Trojan team to greatness.
And we all know that he did: aided by Mike Williams, Hershel Dennis and the ridiculously stacked 2003 recruiting class, USC went on to post a 12-1 record, a dominating Rose Bowl win over Michigan 28-14, and to be named the 2003 AP National Champions.
’03 was the benchmark year for USC’s decade of success, but it was this game that was the catalyst. Before then, the Pac-10 and Trojan fans knew that USC was real, but the county was still lukewarm about how legitimate team actually was. USC had beaten Auburn 24-17 the year before in the Coliseum, but to go into SEC country and again beat this team that was now a top-10 program—and to shut them out entirely, for that matter—really helped propel USC onto the national scene. After this, the Trojans commanded national respect, and backed that respect up for a whole decade.