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The classic mismatch

Orange wasn't Game of the Century after all

Posted: Wednesday January 5, 2005 3:02AM; Updated: Thursday January 20, 2005 10:15AM
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Steve Smith
Steve Smith caught three TDs for USC in the title game.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Confetti was pouring down on the Pro Player Stadium turf, and USC coaches and players stood on a makeshift stage at midfield preparing to accept the ADT Trophy when the chant rose from a small but devoted group of fans who had stayed until the bitter end.

"Back-to-back! Back-to-back!"

Then, just in case there was anyone out there still questioning the Trojans' accomplishment: "Auburn sucks! Auburn sucks!"

An understandable sentiment, but also unnecessary. In dismantling the supposed second-best team in the country 55-19, the USC Trojans left no doubt as to which was the best team in college football this season. If indeed this was the Game of the Century, perhaps Oklahoma can use the next 95 years to catch up.

The great 2005 Orange Bowl was no classic. It was a classic mismatch. The question isn't whether Auburn could have beaten the Trojans, but whether they would have suffered a less embarrassing fate than the Sooners.

USC was facing the most acclaimed opponent of its entire 22-game winning streak, yet was only slightly more challenged than in its own spring game. It was as if the Trojans had deliberately saved their most complete performance of the season for last, just to accentuate the shock value.

"We face our toughest competition on Tuesday and Wednesday [in practice]," said USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson. "I don't think there's anyone out there who can stop us."

Certainly Oklahoma's own bumblings -- four turnovers before halftime -- had a great deal to do with the outcome. But the Sooners weren't the ones who threw for five touchdowns, like Matt "What Heisman curse?" Leinart. They didn't make ridiculous one-handed catches like tight end Dominique Byrd. They didn't run for 118 yards on a bum ankle like LenDale White. This was a total domination through and through, yet afterwards the Trojans didn't seem particularly surprised.

"You could tell early that we could do what we did," said head coach Pete Carroll. "We've been in that situation so much, our guys are familiar with the feeling."

And yet, few would suggest there's actually a 36-point difference between the talent on USC and the talent on Oklahoma. "This was the best offensive line we had seen, the best running back we had seen, the best quarterback we had seen and the best receiving crew we had seen," said Carroll.

So what exactly happened?

No one can say for sure, but USC's performance Tuesday night speaks to something far deeper than rolling out a bunch of Parade All-Americas and telling them to go deep. This was about a group of 18- to 23-year-olds who play in perfect harmony, a carefully orchestrated masterpiece that wasn't nearly as effortless as it looked.

It wasn't that long ago that Oklahoma's Bob Stoops was known as the nation's preeminent big-game coach, but clearly Carroll has taken that tag and run with it. While Stoops' otherwise formidable teams have melted down in consecutive postseasons, Carroll's squads seem to peak just as the stakes reach their highest. Give him a month to prepare and this is what he delivers.

"My boys aren't going to like me saying this, but Oklahoma -- they're a more physically gifted team than us," said Trojans linebacker Lofa Tatupu. "They got outcoached and outplayed today by a bunch of guys who wanted it more."

"The credit goes really to the preparation and this process these guys went though," said Carroll. "Whatever [Oklahoma] did, they were going to have to be so good to beat us tonight, and we knew that going in because we were so prepared to play."

The difference between the two teams could be summed up thusly. In holding Oklahoma star Adrian Peterson to 82 yards rushing, the Trojans rendered the Sooners one-dimensional and, in turn, rather ordinary. Oklahoma held USC phenom Reggie Bush to 75 yards on the ground and still lost by 36.

USC is the complete package, a team with oodles of offensive weapons and a defense just as dominant. With Oklahoma, you have to wonder at this point whether its regular-season domination the past two seasons was something of a mirage. Certainly no one will ever be able to take away Jason White's considerable accomplishments, but it's no coincidence that the Big 12's defenses pale in comparison to those of LSU and USC, the two teams that stifled the 2003 Heisman winner in consecutive national title games.

"I don't have to down-talk Oklahoma," said Bush. "Everyone saw the way we played, saw the way Oklahoma played. It's really pretty self-explanatory."

What isn't quite as explainable is how the Trojans wound up producing an even better team than last year's, despite losing the kind of talent that could crumble lesser programs. Two days before their opener against Virginia Tech, the nation's top returning receiver, Mike Williams, was denied his appeal for reinstatement. This came on the heels of top offensive lineman Winston Justice's suspension, top projected receiver Whitney Lewis' academic exile and several other graduated stars.

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Where USC trumps all others, however, is in its ability to reload. Watching Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith combine for 228 yards on 12 catches Tuesday night, you'd never know the Trojans started two completely different receivers, Williams and Keary Colbert, in last year's Rose Bowl. Watching the Sooners struggle to get any kind of pressure on Leinart, you'd never know USC's offensive line was a season-long work in progress. And the list goes on and on and on.

"The thing I'm most proud of," said Leinart, "is the way we answered a lot of questions coming into the season, that we were too young and had a lot of question marks. Just battling through a lot of tough times, a lot of tough games, we could have thrown in the towel but we just battled back."

When it came to the crowning test, though, there was no battle at all.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.