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Split decision

USC is No. 1 in polls, third in BCS; LSU, Oklahoma to face off in Sugar

Posted: Monday December 8, 2003 2:03AM; Updated: Monday December 8, 2003 2:24AM
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  Reggie Bush
Reggie Bush and USC's lone loss was at Cal on Sept. 27.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

NEW YORK (AP) -- College football fans, get ready to crown not just one, but possibly two national champions.

And get ready for a new round of controversy.

That's because the computer rankings had Oklahoma as the country's top team Sunday while the human poll voters picked Southern California. (Complete polls: AP | Coaches' )

It's exactly what the Bowl Championship Series was designed to avoid, with the prospect of a split title certain to renew cries for a playoff.

"I don't think anyone will know who the legitimate national champion is unless all three teams in consideration get the opportunity to play one another," LSU coach Nick Saban said.

Despite getting walloped by Kansas State 35-7 on Saturday night, Oklahoma will take its 12-1 record to the Sugar Bowl against LSU, which won the Southeastern Conference championship by beating Georgia 34-13.

The winner in New Orleans on Jan. 4 automatically captures the coaches' title under the BCS format. (Complete BCS standings)

USC, which finished third in the BCS rankings, could win The Associated Press championship by beating No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

"I'm not an expert on this, but if the No. 1 team at the end of the regular season wins its bowl game, how are they not the No. 1 team outright?" USC receiver Mike Williams asked. "But we don't play LSU or we don't play Oklahoma, so you'll never know."

The No. 1 team in the AP poll has never dropped after winning its bowl game.

When the BCS contract expires after the 2005 season, a one-game championship might be instituted after the bowls. That would be too late to fix this year's mess.

"The No. 1 team is not playing in the game that they're billing as the championship game," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "Something didn't come out right."

In the final BCS standings, Oklahoma was first with 5.11 points based on its top spot in five of the seven computers, the 11th-toughest schedule and a quality win over Texas. The Sooners were third in both polls.

"At the end of the year, we're No. 1 in the system," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "There's nothing to apologize for."

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LSU head coach Nick Saban is ecstatic to be playing in the Sugar Bowl, even if the Tigers' selection was controversial.

LSU (12-1) was second with 5.99, edging out USC (11-1) by 0.16 in the second closest finish in the six-year history of the BCS. Nebraska beat Colorado by 0.05 in 2001.

The Trojans got 79 of the 128 first-place votes in the polls but finished third in five computers because of a weak Pac-10 schedule.

"In a way it doesn't make sense," USC cornerback Will Poole said. "They're going to have to do something about the BCS. Maybe they need to pull the plug."

LSU was second in the polls and six computers and edged out USC based on a tougher schedule. LSU and USC were each picked first in one computer.

The Tigers' spot in the title game wasn't assured until Boise State beat Hawaii at 3 a.m. EST Sunday.

According to BCS expert Jerry Palm, that game was worth 0.2 points in the strength of schedule because USC beat Hawaii in September -- slightly more than the difference between the Trojans and Tigers.

"What we have are three very deserving teams and only two of them are in the game," said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who coordinates the BCS.

"I'm glad we're bringing the No. 1 and 2 teams in the BCS together. But I have empathy for USC. It's hard to sit here and do cartwheels."

The dream matchup for the Rose Bowl, a traditional pairing of Big Ten and Pac-10 champions with national title implications, is the doomsday scenario for the BCS.

It's the third time in four seasons that a team in the top two in the polls didn't make it to the BCS title game. The Pac-10 has been the victim twice and remains the only BCS conference not to put a team in the title game in the six years of the system.

"It is most unfortunate that the other elements of the BCS standings gave overruled the two polls and taken USC out of the national championship game," Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen said.

The BCS avoided disaster those years because No. 1 Oklahoma beat Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl and No. 1 Miami beat Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl.

The No. 2 teams in the polls won their bowl games those years and could have won the AP title if the top-ranked teams lost. The only way to avoid a disputed finish this year is if Michigan (10-2) beats USC.

"You would like the No. 1 and No. 2 team to be playing each other, but USC still has a chance to win a share of the national championship," LSU quarterback Matt Mauck said. "I think it is kind of messed up, but there's still a chance for everyone who thinks they are deserving to have a part of it."

There was talk two years ago when Nebraska made the title game without winning the Big 12 to make a winning a conference a requirement to make the championship game. There are sure to be more calls for that change because of Oklahoma.

"With the events this year, we'd be foolish if we didn't look at it again in the spring," Tranghese said.

The other BCS matchups have No. 10 Miami (10-2) playing No. 9 Florida State (10-2) in the Orange Bowl and No. 8 Kansas State (11-3) facing No. 7 Ohio State (10-2) in the Fiesta Bowl.

Both the Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl wanted Ohio State, but the Fiesta won out because of a rotation that gave them first pick. The Orange Bowl settled for a regular season rematch.

Champions of the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC qualify for a BCS game. Oklahoma and Ohio State were picked as at-large teams.

Despite the controversy, there are still two intriguing matchups.

First up is USC-Michigan on Jan. 1 in the seventh Rose Bowl meeting between the schools. The game features two high-powered offenses. USC is sixth in the nation in scoring at 42.2 points per game and Michigan is ninth at 37.2.

Quarterback Matt Leinart leads a balanced offense for the Trojans, who have game-breaking receivers in Williams, Keary Colbert and Steve Smith and a dangerous running duo of Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

"I think we're going to have the national championship game right where we are," Tournament of Roses president Mike Rife said. "We're going to thoroughly enjoy having the Pac-10 and Big Ten back with us again."

Three days later, LSU will play Oklahoma in what will almost be a home game for the Tigers at the Superdome in New Orleans -- a short drive from LSU's campus.

This game features the country's two best defenses. Oklahoma leads the nation, allowing only 255.6 yards per game, slightly better than LSU's 259.5. The Tigers have the top scoring defense at 10.8 points per game compared to Oklahoma's third-best 14.9.

"We have a blockbuster game," Sugar Bowl executive director Paul Hoolahan said. "There's no doubt about it."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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