They couldn't pick their opponent.
The sixth-ranked Trojans routed Illinois 49-17 on Tuesday and showed the rest of the country that, yes, maybe they are the best team in college football right now.
Certainly, a better test might have come against Georgia or Virginia Tech, or maybe next week against Ohio State in the national title game.
But the Rose Bowl wanted a Pac-10-Big Ten matchup, and the national title game didn't want sixth-ranked Southern California. So, it wound up being Southern Cal-Illinois in the Granddaddy of 'Em All, and the Trojans made the Illini pay.
Freshman tailback Joe McKnight finished with 170 of Southern Cal's Rose Bowl-record 633 yards. The 49 points tied a record, too, and the rout gave the Trojans 11 wins for an unprecedented sixth consecutive season.
They have been one of the country's best teams over that span, and might have been the best this season, too. Lacking the playoff that coach Pete Carroll favors or the trip to the title game he lobbied for, the Trojans (11-2) will have to settle for this overwhelming display in Pasadena.
"Everything that was out there for us, we took," Carroll said. "The rest of it is up for discussion. But would I love to still be playing right now? Sure would. We'd go out there any time, any place, any venue and throw our football out there and see what we could do."
The game featured 1,078 yards of offense. Despite the margin, things were truly competitive for a brief moment. Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall broke a 79-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter to trim what had been a three-touchdown deficit to 21-10.
Minutes later, Mendenhall scooted 55 yards with a screen pass from Juice Williams, and Ron Zook's 13th-ranked Illini (9-4) were looking as if they might really complete the impossible dream, from 2-19 over the past two years to Rose Bowl champions.
But two plays later, Kaluka Maiava popped the ball out of receiver Jacob Willis' hands and Southern Cal's Brian Cushing won a scramble in the end zone, one of four Illinois turnovers.
"This hurts," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "I told our guys we were representing the conference and we let the Big Ten down. I think we can compete, but we have to do it."