The revered status of the Rose Bowl faded somewhat over the last two years, when the machinations of the Bowl Championship Series denied the game its traditional pairing of the Pacific-10 and Big Ten champions.
Two years ago, the Rose Bowl was designated the national championship game by the BCS, and Miami routed Nebraska for the title. Then came last year's pairing of Oklahoma and Washington State, which drew the smallest Rose Bowl crowd since the World War II era.
Almost overnight, it seemed, the bowl game dubbed "The Granddaddy of Them All" became just another relative at the crowded postseason table.
Not only is tradition back for the 90th Rose Bowl, but it's back with an exclamation point, as Rose Bowl chief executive Mitch Dorger puts it.
The New Year's Day game pits Pac-10 champion Southern California (11-1), the most successful team in Rose Bowl history, against Big Ten champion Michigan (10-2), the winningest team in college football history.
Adding to the buzz is USC's No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll, which virtually ensures the Trojans of a share of the national title if they win Thursday. The BCS, meantime, will crown the winner of Sunday's Sugar Bowl, which pits No. 2 Oklahoma against No. 3 Louisiana State, as the national champion.
Rose Bowl officials are reveling in the matchup, which has generated unparalleled buzz, a guaranteed capacity crowd and the prospect of record TV ratings.
"The great tradition is back, and the fact that it has national championship ramifications is just tremendous," Dorger said.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Dorger sees the game from the perspective of both a CEO and lifelong college football fan.
"When I grew up, [former Ohio State coach] Woody Hayes was God, and the Rose Bowl was heaven," Dorger said. "There is a lot of that tradition and heritage and 50 years of doing things a certain way that go into having a very successful partnership."
Dorger's not the only one doing back flips.
Legendary former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler refused to watch the last two Rose Bowls. "When there's no Big Ten team in it, I'm not going to watch it," said Schembechler, who is part of this year's Wolverines traveling party. "This is the way it's supposed to be: Michigan and USC!"
Even the game's players, whose grasp of football's roots rarely extends beyond the mid-1990s, realize the significance.
"Who the heck wants Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl?" said Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards. "This is a chance for us to show what the Rose Bowl should really be about!"
Edwards's father, Stanley Edwards, played in the 1980 Rose Bowl. So, from childhood, Braylon knew the game meant Pac-10 versus Big Ten; the West versus the Midwest.
"Everybody should cherish this game, because who knows when it will happen again," Edwards said.
Michigan starred in the first Rose Bowl played, demolishing Stanford, 49-0, in 1902. But it wasn't until 1946 that the formal agreement was signed ensuring that the Big Ten and Pac-10 would send their respective champions to Pasadena for the annual game.
That pact was bargained away in talks that led to the formation of the BCS in 1998. To Schembechler, it was a dreadful mistake.
"It just bothered me that the Big Ten and Pac-10 caved in [in joining the BCS]," Schembechler said. "We were still the most dominant bowl game that was! The greatest matchup of two great conferences! It was what college football was all about! We didn't have to do that [join the BCS]."
Still, the Rose Bowl has retained its traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 lineup for four of the six years under the BCS. The two years it didn't exacted a price.
Attendance at last year's Rose Bowl was 86,848, the smallest crowd since 1944. That meant glaring sections of empty seats in the historic venue, which has a seating capacity that tops 100,000.
TV ratings took a hit, as well.
According to Dorger, the Rose Bowl routinely draws ratings in the 14.0-15.0 range, appealing to a broad swath of viewers from East Coast to West. While Oklahoma brought a large traveling party to last year's game, the Sooners didn't pull in as many TV viewers from the East and Midwest as a Big Ten team typically does. Ratings were huge in Oklahoma, but down five full points in New York and three points nationally.
"That doesn't necessarily take money out of our pocket," Dorger said, "but it impacts the prestige of the game and how other people, including advertisers, view the game."
Local interest also waned.
"When we lose the Pac-10-Big Ten matchup, a lot of local fans were turned off," Dorger said. "It's something they want to see. And when we don't, I get a lot of e-mails saying, 'Why can't you have a Big 10-Pac-10 matchup?' "
Few are more grateful for this year's pairing than Michigan tight end Andy Mignery, a fifth-year senior from Hamilton, Ohio.
"I grew up hearing my father and my grandpa talk about the Rose Bowl and January first -- 'Where are we gonna watch it?' 'What time does it start?' 'We're there!' " Mignery said. "And that's what we did, whether it was the [Ohio State] Buckeyes playing or the Michigan Wolverines playing. We were right there, always pulling for the Big Ten team."
Soon Mignery will marry into a bit of Rose Bowl history. His fiancée's father, Dave Fisher, played in the 1965 Rose Bowl as a Michigan fullback. "Now he can't ever say, 'I played in the Rose Bowl, Andy,' " Mignery said. "That's really neat to be able to talk about the Rose Bowl together because it's going to be for a lifetime."