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Stewart Mandel inside.c.football

Intrigue and injustice

Oklahoma-USC a great game, but will it outweigh BCS' negatives?

Posted: Sunday December 5, 2004 9:51PM; Updated: Monday December 6, 2004 12:00PM
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  Oklahoma celebrates
Mark Bradley, Mark Clayton and the Oklahoma receivers will put USC's secondary to the test in Miami.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The BCS is a travesty, a sham, an all-out crime against humanity. But, man, is that USC-Oklahoma game going to be awesome.

In terms of glitches, controversies and hypocrisies, the Big Con System really outdid itself in year seven. But it also managed to ratchet up its most compelling title game yet, one the powers-that-be will be quick to remind you would not have been possible before 1998.

So if you're a true fan of college football, it's hard not be conflicted today. You're ticked off that, 135 years into the sport's existence, we still haven't come up with a better method for determining our champion. You're puzzled how an undefeated Auburn team not only can't play for a national title, but doesn't even get to face fellow undefeated squad Utah. And you're disgusted with the shenanigans that went into the last-minute Cal-Texas Rose Bowl switcheroo.

But you're also going to be foaming at the mouth anticipating the showdown of USC and Oklahoma. Traveler vs. Boomer Sooner, Carroll vs. Stoops, Leinart vs. White, Bush vs. Peterson. Right or wrong, the consensus No. 1 vs. No. 2.

"It's a perfect matchup," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "It's what everyone hoped this game would come to, and now it has."

"The kind of matchup people have been anticipating for awhile," said Oklahoma's Bob Stoops. "Two teams with great tradition and history in championship games, and a great recent history in championship games. I would imagine the rest of the country is also very excited about it."

But is it exciting enough to override all other elements of this latest, flawed postseason? Because let's be honest, in terms of pure numbers, the negatives outweigh the positives. A tale of the tape:

The good

1. A truly epic Orange Bowl matchup reminiscent of some of the great pre-BCS classics. Yes, Florida State-Virginia Tech (1999) and Ohio State-Miami (2002) also paired up undefeated teams, but both of those were billed as David vs. Goliath matchups (though the Buckeyes wound up proving otherwise). On paper, USC-Oklahoma is as even as it gets, and the matchups couldn't be more compatible. Jason White and the Sooners' formidable offensive line against the Trojans' menacing pass rush. Adrian Peterson against a vulnerable USC rush defense. Reggie Bush and LenDale White against the Sooners' dominant rush defense. Matt Leinart and his speedy receivers against OU's suspect secondary.

"I don't want to say [the teams] are mirror images of each other," said Stoops, "but there's a lot of similarities on both sides of the ball."

What makes this game truly special, though, is the fact that the Trojans and Sooners have been the game's two most dominant programs for three years now but have yet to meet. It came close to happening last year; now it's finally come to fruition.

"Two good coaching staffs, two great football teams," said OU offensive coordinator Chuck Long. "I think this will be great for America."

2. A deserving Utah team will make history in the Fiesta Bowl. Leaders for the mid-major conferences went on a crusade against the BCS last year, but it's doubtful the Utes would have garnered such an invite without the BCS' top-six guarantee. An educated guess as to what the lineup would have looked like if this were, say, 1991: Rose, USC-Michigan; Fiesta: Cal-Texas; Sugar: Auburn-Virginia Tech; Orange, Oklahoma-Georgia.

Now, the bad

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1. The integrity of the polls comes into question. That Texas is playing in the Rose Bowl instead of Cal is not by itself an injustice. You can make plenty of arguments in favor of either 10-1 team. What is ridiculous is the way the Longhorns got in, sitting on their couch while Cal traveled across the country and won at Southern Miss -- but apparently not by enough for the tens of voters who moved Texas up and the Bears down in their final poll, knowing exactly what the ramifications were when they did it. "If you have to go in and blow people out," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford, "that doesn't serve the integrity of the game."

Among those who made the last-minute switch: writers in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. Many will wonder whether they and their counterparts in the coaches' poll succumbed to the lobbying efforts of 'Horns coach Mack Brown and/or pressure from their constituencies. "I thought it was a little classless how Coach Brown was begging for votes after the [Texas A&M] game," said Cal QB Aaron Rodgers. "I think a team's record and the way you play should speak for itself."

It was in response to last year's controversy that the BCS revised its formula to put more emphasis on the human polls. Now that decision has created its own controversies. In a gesture of either mockery or defiance, Joe Paterno split his first-place vote into thirds Sunday in the coaches' poll. "[The emphasis on the polls] is something we'll go back and look at in future," said BCS coordinator Kevin Weiberg. Where have we heard that before?

2. The No. 19 team in the country gets one of the top eight bowl spots. Don't blame Pittsburgh, it didn't make the rules. The Panthers will enjoy themselves in Tempe just fine. Nevertheless, their inclusion in the BCS at the expense of teams like Cal and Louisville is comical. Weiberg pointed out Sunday that this is hardly the first time a three-loss team reached the BCS, but you'd be hard pressed to give a three-loss team coming out of this year's depleted Big East as much credibility as its predecessors. And to answer your question, no, there are no plans to revoke the Big East or any other conference's automatic bid anytime soon.

"This system is one that has always been built around conference champions," said Weiberg. "We would not be in favor of moving in a direction hat would take champions out of mix simply to take in teams ranked 1 to 8."

3. There are five undefeated teams, and only two are playing each other. Outgoing Utah coach Urban Meyer took the P.C. route Sunday, saying he wasn't frustrated by the Fiesta matchup, but deep down you know he would have liked a chance to prove his Mountain West team's worth once and for all against a similarly ranked opponent -- the logical choice being Auburn. After all, that's what every fan in America would have liked to see. But once again, the fans' interest took a backseat to those of the guys in the blazers.

"No one raised a concern about the pairings," said Weiberg. "There was a feeling these matchups were good for these places these games would take place."

4. Umm, Auburn. There's not much else you can say at this point. No, the Tigers are not the first undefeated team to be denied a shot at the national title. Joe Paterno could write an entire book about it. But before the BCS, the whole idea of a national champion was, at it's often been described, mythical. You went and played your bowl game as usual, then worried about the polls. The BCS was created for the sole purpose of creating a true No. 1 vs. No. 2 title game, and for the second straight year, we have no way of knowing whether that was actually accomplished.

Interestingly, USC's Carroll, despite his team being in Auburn's shoes this time last year, longs for the good old days. "I like the old way it was done, to tell you the truth," he said Sunday night. "I like the traditional bowl matchups. I just wish they could add elements to play it off after the bowls."

As has been discussed at length, that's not going to happen anytime soon. And if we did revert to the old days, the Trojans, Sooners and Tigers would all be playing in different games.

And thus, we come to this year's inherent dilemma. In many ways, the system has hit a new low. But it's the same system that allows us to watch USC play Oklahoma.

Damn you, BCS.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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