This game would normally be staged in Pasadena this time of year, but when the Fiesta Bowl pitted unbeatens Miami and Ohio State for the national title, the Orange Bowl used the rules of the Bowl Championship Series to execute an end-around, landing a matchup of two of the hottest teams in college football.
"Funny how things work out," said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, who admitted that back in the summer his team had set its sights on playing in the Rose Bowl.
The good fortune continued for the Orange Bowl even after the pairings was announced. The game gained additional luster when USC quarterback Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy, and his Iowa counterpart, Brad Banks, was second.
"There's going to be a lot more pressure on me in that game and he's definitely got something to play for, so it's going to be exciting," Palmer said.
The Orange Bowl normally has trouble selling tickets in games when it does not have the national title contest, but this game sold out quickly.
"Just a perfect matchup," said USC Coach Pete Carroll, who has built a 14-3 record with the Trojans after a 2-5 start.
Palmer has been at his best during the Trojans' late eight games, passing for 2,676 yards and 27 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He likely won the Heisman on Nov. 29, when he passed for 425 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-13 rout of Notre Dame.
It capped a remarkable turnaround for the senior, who up until this year had fallen short of expectations. Palmer played in the Sun Bowl in 1998 and the Las Vegas Bowl last year, and lost each time.
In this contest, he also has a strong cast of characters with him.
There also is a deep stable of running backs that includes Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas.
Safety Troy Polamalu leads a defense that ranks seventh in the nation against the run.
USC (10-2) will take a six-game winning streak to the game, while Iowa (11-1) has won nine straight since its only blemish of the season. In that one, Iowa squandered a 24-7 halftime lead in losing to Iowa State, or it could have been playing for even higher stakes.
The Orange Bowl will mark a homecoming of sorts for Banks, a native of Belle Glades, Fl., who threw for 2,369 yards and 25 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Banks had never started a major college game before this season, but emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Hawkeyes.
His favorite target is Maurice Brown, who had 10 touchdown catches this season. On the ground, Fred Russell rushed for 1,219 yards while being limited to 10 games because of an injury.
Defensive lineman Jared Clauss and linebacker Grant Steen anchor a run defense ranked second in the nation. The Hawkeyes likely will need a big game from safety Derek Pagel as the secondary tries to contain Palmer and his speedy group of receivers.
Iowa has the edge in the kicking game.
Nate Kaeding won the Lou Groza Award as the top kicker in college football, and has scored a school record 115 points. In its first bowl game under Ferentz, Iowa beat Texas Tech, 16-13, last year in the Alamo Bowl.
USC is 25-15 in bowl games, but has not won one since beating Northwestern, 41-32, in the Rose Bowl following the 1995 season.
USC leads the series with Iowa, 6-2, but the teams have not met since a 55-0 win by the Trojans in 1976.
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