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How LSU and Oklahoma Met in the 2004 Sugar Bowl

How short memories can be.

For years, decades, really, fans had complained – almost always when their favorite team was not in the top spot – about the biases of sportswriters voting in the polls.  The coaches’ poll (now under the auspices of USA Today/ESPN) was also questioned, but to a lesser degree because coaches, by their own admissions, often don’t vote; they let underlings do it for them, at least until the end of the regular season.

In a way, that’s what brought on the advent of the Bowl Championship Series, with its series of factors – knowledgeable observations and the data from various polls fed into computers – to come up with the most deserving two teams to meet for the national championship.

The idea was to have as close to a true No. 1 game as possible, while preserving the bowl system, and not, as was the case for most of the 20th century, a championship based on opinion.  Educated opinions for the most part, but opinions nevertheless.

Yet that’s exactly what was at the heart of the great college football debate of 2003 – not to mention the national championship.

Here’s the crux of the matter:  Oklahoma spent the entire regular season at the top of the two polls, then, when it was released in October, the BCS standings.  OU obliterated the other contenders, and was talked about and written about as perhaps the greatest team of all-time – until the Sooners stunningly lost 35-7 to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game.  Southern Cal had a remarkably fine season, losing once to a so-so California squad, but finishing atop the sportswriters and coaches polls.  Not flashy but efficient LSU came out of nowhere after losing to Florida at midseason then stampeding the rest of its way to the SEC championship game.

The trio was obviously the nation’s best college football teams, all with one defeat.

The BCS formula was then a combination of computer rankings, schedule comparisons, quality-win bonuses and a composite of the AP writers and USA Today/ESPN coaches polls.

The human opinion polls had USC ranked No. 1 at the end of the regular season, but the cold, calculating, dispassionate seven computers that figured the BCS standings had Oklahoma and LSU ranked 1 and 2, based largely on strength of schedule, a factor that was not determined until the last weekend of the season with Syracuse defeating Notre Dame and Boise State beating Hawaii.  Both of the losing teams had been USC opponents and deflated the Trojans’ accomplishments. 

Those games turned out to mean everything because, coupled with LSU beating Georgia in the SEC title match, the Trojans suddenly trailed both OU and LSU in six of the seven computer rankings and in overall schedule strength.  In the final BCS rankings, Oklahoma, 12-1, was first with 5.11 points based on its No. 1 position in five of the seven computers.  LSU, 12-1, was second at 5.99, edging USC (11-1) by .16 in the second-closest finish in the BCS’ six-year history.

Nebraska nipped Colorado by 0.05 in 2001.

The howl that went up in Los Angeles (home base of the Trojans) and by voting sportswriters made the weeks leading up to bowls a media-spitting match.  Southern Cal, No. 1 in the AP poll, was set to play fourth-ranked Michigan in the Rose Bowl.  A victory would give the Trojans first place in at least one poll.

But Oklahoma and LSU were ticketed to play for the BCS national championship in the Sugar Bowl, a title, site and formula designated years before and agreed to be every school in the NCAA’s Division 1-A, including Southern California.

An irony is that the system was tweaked the previous year to take margins of victory out of the computers’ computations because of thinking that the equation shouldn’t be a factor, that a victory was just a victory and a defeat was just a defeat.  So Oklahoma’s lopsided loss to Kansas State had no more weight than USC’s or LSU’s.  Also, as opposed to years gone by, a late-season defeat was no worse than an early setback.  USC lost in September, LSU in October, and Oklahoma in December.

Had those computations remained in the equation (and apparently they did in the minds of the sportswriters), it’s very likely LSU would have been playing Southern Cal in the Sugar Bowl.

But for all the computers could factor was one defeat for each of the contenders, and one fewer victory for USC than Oklahoma or LSU.  If the argument was difficulty of schedule, the Trojans came up short there, too.  USC and LSU had two common opponents, Auburn and Arizona.  The Trojans beat Auburn 23-0 in the opening game of the season; LSU defeated Auburn 31-7 eight weeks later.  LSU beat Arizona 59-13 in its second game.  USC whipped Arizona 45-0.  Diplomatic Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said he wouldn’t want to be playing LSU right now (at the end of the regular season when the LSU defense was performing with the cold precision of an execution squad).  Arizona senior Clay Hart was asked to make a comparison and said, "I thought they were really good," he said of the Trojans, "but I personally think LSU was the best team we’ve faced since I’ve been a Wildcat."

"Everybody wants to sit here and say they got screwed," Oklahoma defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek said of Southern Cal, "but they actually got the easier row to hoe.  They got to stay at home (in the Rose Bowl), play the lesser team (Michigan).

BCS coordinator Mike Tranghese put things in a smiley-face scenario:  "If you’re a USC fan, you’re very, very disappointed," he said.  "On the other hand, if you’re an Oklahoma or LSU fan, you’re happy because you’re being given an opportunity to play.  In the old (pre-BCS) system, these teams would have gone to separate bowl games.  USC would have gone to the Rose Bowl, and LSU would have gone to the Sugar and Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.  And none of them would have played (each other).  So I think our system is better than we had."

Tiger defensive tackle Kyle Williams would’ve liked to put the title on the line between the winners of the Rose and Sugar bowls, "Would I like to play them?  Sure, we’d love to play them and decide it (who’s No. 1)," he said of the Trojans.  "I’m sure USC is looking at it the same way we are.  To them, their game is the one that matters.  But to us, this is the spotlight game.  It’s us against Oklahoma for all the marbles…Well, most of them."

The Sugar Bowl really had the look of a monumental collusion comin’ on.

Oklahoma was the highest-scoring team in college football, averaging an eye-popping 45.2 points.  And the Sooners were also the nation’s third-best overall defensive team, giving up an average of 255.7 yards a game.

Consider this heady statistic:  In its first 12 games, Oklahoma was behind for fewer than six of the 720 minutes played. 

Not only did the Sooners have seven first-team All-Americans, but they practically swept the major individual awards that go to the sports crème de la crème.  They were:  the Heisman Trophy, to quarterback Jason White, as the nation’s top player; the Fred Biletnikoff Award, to Mark Clayton, as the nation’s top receiver; the Chuck Bednarik Award, to Tommie Harris, the top defensive player; the Dick Butkus Award, to Teddy Lehman, the top linebacker; the Lombardi, to Harris, the top interior player; the Bronco Nagurski, the Jim Thorpe to Derrick Strait, the top defensive back; the Davey O’Brien, to White, the top quarterback; and AP Player of the Year to White.

No wonder they were being compared with the best teams of all time.

Next to the Sooners, the Tigers just had two All-Americans, defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and cornerback Corey Webster.

Conversely, despite its relative anonymity, LSU was a complete team, scoring an average of 35 points behind Matt Mauck, a 24-year-old former minor-league catcher who had the SEC’s highest quarterback rating, along with a dangerous combination of running backs and receivers and a big, fast offensive line that combined for 156 starts.

It was on defense, though, where LSU separated itself from the rest of college football.  The Tigers led the nation in rushing defense, yielding a miniscule 68.2 yards, and were atop the statistical list in scoring defense, allowing a paltry 10.5 points a game.

This is how lethal LSU could be:  In the SEC championship game, against a Georgia squad that was still in the Top 10 despite its earlier defeat to the Tigers, at one point LSU led the Bulldogs 17-0 and outgained them 196 to minus 8.

It was obvious that in the Sugar Bowl something would have to give – but not the self-discipline of the Tigers, very much aware LSU hadn’t won a national title in 45 years.

LSU offensive lineman Stephen Peterman eyed the crystal trophy that goes to the BCS champion as it was displayed on the 25-yard line of the Superdome two days before the Sugar Bowl.  "I ain’t touching it," he said.  "Rub it like a genie?  Has anyone ever touched it and lost?  Not me.  It’s a jinx.

"You can’t touch it – it’s not ours yet."  

Recap excerpted from the book "Sugar Bowl Classic: A History" by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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