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College football

A split decision for No. 1

USC tops both polls, but Oklahoma reigns in the BCS and faces LSU in championship game.

By BOB HARIG
Published December 8, 2003

For the first time in 22 years, the USC Trojans are the No.1 college football team in the country. They are 11-1, won the Pac-10 Conference and are headed to the Rose Bowl to face Michigan. The Men of Troy should be dancing in the Los Angeles streets.

Instead, there was an uneasy feeling emanating from South California on Sunday as the Trojans learned they are No.1 in the polls, but No.3 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, meaning they won't play in the designated national championship game, the Sugar Bowl.

That honor, instead, went to second-ranked LSU (12-1) and third-ranked Oklahoma (12-1), which remained No.1 in the BCS standings despite a 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game on Saturday. LSU, which defeated Georgia to claim the SEC title, passed USC in the standings by just .16 to claim the other Sugar Bowl spot.

"What we have is three very deserving teams and only two are in the game," said Mike Tranghese, the BCS coordinator and Big East commissioner. "It's hard to sit here and do cartwheels."

Controversy was not relegated to the Sugar Bowl. The Orange Bowl, which had hoped to stage a Miami-Ohio State rematch of last season's national title game, was forced to take Florida State, meaning a rematch of the Oct. 11 game won by the Hurricanes in Tallahassee. The teams also will open the 2004 season in Miami. The Fiesta Bowl exercised its right to choose Ohio State over FSU, matching the Buckeyes with Big 12 champion Kansas State.

Tranghese did his best to put a positive spin on the BCS developments in a Sunday evening conference call, but for the second straight year one of the four bowls puts it best interests over another. (Last year, the Orange Bowl invited Iowa to the dismay of the Rose Bowl.)

For the second time in three years, a team that did not win its conference is playing for the national title. And for the third time in the six-year history of the BCS, a strong argument can be made for the team left out.

But never had the consensus No.1 team in the country been denied. USC coach Pete Carroll remained upbeat and focused on the fact that never has an AP No.1 team won its bowl game and been overtaken for a national title.

"We're playing Michigan in the Rose Bowl and we're the No.1 team in the country," he said. "We're going to do everything in our power to end the season as the No.1 team in the country. ... We look at it as the Rose Bowl is the national championship game for us."

The Sugar Bowl, however, is where, at the very least, the ESPN/USA Today champion will be crowned. The coaches who vote in that poll are contractually obligated to vote the champion of the BCS title game as the national champion.

"Football coaches always say it's a game of inches," Sugar Bowl executive director Paul Hoolahan said. "Unfortunately, with the BCS, it's become a game of fractions. That's what we're dealing with."

Indeed, a minuscule amount separated LSU and USC. Tranghese said the human polls and computer polls used in the BCS system basically offset each other, with the deciding factor coming down to strength of schedule. And the Tigers made a big jump, from 53rd to 29th, by playing Georgia. Meanwhile, USC was hurt by games Saturday that were otherwise meaningless. Losses by Notre Dame (to Syracuse) and Hawaii (to Boise State), teams the Trojans defeated this season, hurt USC's strength of schedule, which ended at 37th.

"It's unfortunate that somebody can't play because we don't have a playoff," LSU coach Nick Saban said. "I don't think anybody will know who the legitimate national champion will be unless all three teams get to play each other. I think what we have to do is take the system we have, respect it. We're going to play in the BCS national championship. Whichever team wins the game is certainly going to have a claim to the national championship."

"The system is what it is," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "I don't apologize. I'm incredibly proud of our players. We all knew the system going into the year and at the end of the year, we're No.1 in that system. So there is nothing to apologize about."

The BCS standings are determined by the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, seven computer rankings, strength of schedule, losses and a bonus-point system for victories over teams that finish in the BCS's top 10.

Tranghese pointed out that tweaks to the system have been made. After FSU earned a championship-game spot opposite Oklahoma three years ago - despite losing to Miami during the regular season - a quality win component was added to the system.

But Tranghese appeared troubled that another team made it to the title game without winning its conference championship. Two years ago, Nebraska played Miami in the Rose Bowl despite not even winning the Big 12 North. BCS representatives discussed the situation but made no changes.

"There was a fear that there would be someone who didn't win a (conference) championship game who clearly needed to be in the (national championship) game," Tranghese said. "There just wasn't collective support for it. But obviously the fact that it's happened for the second time in three years ... it's something we have to talk about."

[Last modified December 8, 2003, 01:46:15]


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