The transformation from dynasty to destiny came suddenly. Texas quarterback Vince Young, on fourth-and-5 from the Southern Cal 8-yard line, bolted from the pocket and outraced Southern Cal defenders Frostee Rucker and Kevin Thomas to the right pylon, and suddenly the third-longest college football winning streak in modern history was just that: history.
Southern Cal had won 34 straight games. Since World War I, only Oklahoma (47) and Toledo (35) had put together longer victory streaks. Anyone inside Heritage Hall, USC's athletic complex, could have told you that were it not for a triple-overtime loss in Berkeley two years ago, the Trojans would have entered Wednesday night's national championship game looking to tie Bud Wilkinson's Sooners at 47.
Critics and cynics will certainly note that, during a Rose Bowl advent when a certain sports-themed network was comparing this Trojans team to the greatest college outfits of all time, USC was not even the best team this season. They are correct, of course, but that may be missing the point.
Southern Cal was victimized by Young's superlative talent (his performance was both prolific and heroic); by its inability to finish off the Longhorns twice (a dropped interception and a failed fourth-down conversion) in the final five minutes; and, lastly, by entropy.
The Law of Entropy states that order tends toward disorder, as opposed to the other way around. Entropy ensures that a child's bedroom, if left untended, will go from clean to messy rather than the other way around. It holds that nothing beautiful, be it a human figure or a nearly three-year win streak, lasts forever.
"I don't like losing," said USC tailback LenDale White, whose 83 second-half yards would have been cited as the reason the Trojans prevailed had they won, "but everybody can't win all the time."
There is no Law of Sports Entropy, but if there were, it might state that with every victory, a team becomes more susceptible to a loss. Southern Cal took everyone's best shot this year. Arizona State went up 21-3 against the Trojans on Oct. 1 before losing. The Sun Devils would finish the season 7-5. Fresno State went up 42-41 at the Los Angeles Coliseum in November, lost 50-42 and then was humbled by inferior teams in its next two games before losing to Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl. And Wednesday night?
"You've got to give credit to USC for making us play like that," said Longhorns tailback Selvin Young as he stood on the Rose Bowl turf afterward. "I don't know that we would be able to give an effort that great against any other team."
All dynasties crumble. All champions fall. The truest of those don't go quietly. The Trojans came within one play of becoming the first team in Division I-A history to win three consecutive national titles (they shared the national championship with LSU in 2003). It may be coincidence or just irony that the Trojans play in a stadium modeled and named after a structure that was the athletic nexus of the Roman Empire, the greatest dynasty in the history of Western Civilization.
"I'm very, very, very, very, very proud of this team and what they have accomplished," said USC Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen as he watched the Longhorns celebrate. "I was really hoping the defense would make the stop there at the end. They've been maligned so much. It would have been fitting if they could have vindicated themselves on that final drive."
Across the end zone from Allen, actor Matthew McConaughey, a Texas alum, embraced a fellow Austin resident who knows a thing or seven about athletic dynasties. McConaughey put his left arm around Lance Armstrong's neck and held up two fingers, the "Hook 'em, Horns" sign. "You see this?" McConaughey said. "Holding up these two [fingers] means the same thing as when other people do this."
And with that McConaughey held up his index finger. In other words, a new dynasty, one that is 20 wins old, rules college football. Now it is Mack Brown, Vince Young and the Longhorns who have a date with entropy.