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The Narrative Of The 2003 College Football Season

The 2003 college football season was a strange one. For over three months, the end result looked like a fait accompli. Oklahoma was burying people left and right and the question seemed to be not whether they would win the national championship, but where they would stand among the greatest teams of all-time. Then, in the blink of an eye, the Sooners fell apart. The end result was a split national championship between LSU and USC that really satisfied no one.

Nick Saban’s star was on the rise as the head coach of LSU, and the ’03 edition of the Tigers played the best defense of anyone in the nation. They were led by All-American defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and defensive back Corey Webster, who intercepted seven passes. On the offensive side, Justin Vincent and Michael Clayton were 1,000-yard rushers and receivers respectively, with quarterback Matt Mauck overseeing it all.

Auburn was the preseason favorite in the SEC, but the Tigers did not meet expectations. LSU struck on September 20 when they beat seventh-ranked Georgia 17-10 and moved into the national Top 10. An October loss to Florida set the Tigers back, but they closed strong. LSU beat Auburn decisively, 31-7. They nipped 15th-ranked Ole Miss 17-14. When the Tigers hammered Arkansas 55-24, they were sitting at #3 in the polls, headed for the SEC Championship Game and hoping for the right confluence of events to fall their way in the national picture.

USC had closed 2002 strong, winning the Orange Bowl, but were also saying goodbye to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer. The good news in Los Angeles is that head coach Pete Carroll was building what would become college football’s signature dynasty for the next few years.

Matt Leinart stepped into the quarterback job and the sophomore threw for over 3,500 yards, completed 63 percent of his passes and 8.8 yards-per attempt, and his TD/INT ratio was a dazzling 38-9. Mike Williams was one of the nation’s top receivers and Keary Colbert was a terrific second option for Leinart. A balanced running game included a couple other sophomores, by the names of Reggie Bush and Lendale White. The offensive line was led by All-American Jacob Rogers and another All-American was on the defensive side in the trenches, Kenechi Udeze.

In short, the Trojans were loaded. They were ranked #8 to start the season and got the ball rolling by shutting out Auburn 23-0. Their only stumble was a 34-31 loss to Cal, and their junior quarterback Aaron Rodgers, at the end of September. But USC rolled through everyone else, including a 43-16 thumping of sixth-ranked Washington State to open November. They were Rose Bowl-bound, in the hunt for the national championship, and hoping something could be done to stop the Oklahoma steamroller.

Speaking of the Sooner Schooner—OU was ranked #1 in the preseason polls, the favorite in a Big 12 Conference that also had Texas (#5) and Kansas State (#7) highly thought of in the initial rankings.

Oklahoma dominated the major individual awards. Jason White won the Heisman Trophy, throwing 40 touchdown passes and for over 3,800 yards. On the defensive side, tackle Tommie Harris won the Lombardi Trophy. Linebacker Teddy Lehman brought home the Butkus. And defensive back Derrick Strait took the Thorpe Award. White’s’ top target, NFL-bound Mark Clayton, racked up over 1,400 yards receiving.

Oklahoma began blowing people out, and the signature moment of the regular season was a stunning 65-13 demolition of Texas. In an era when the Big 12 had North and South divisions, that win all but wrapped up the South for OU. They kept on hammering people, including a 34-13 win over ranked Missouri in October.

On the North side, Kansas State got a huge year from Darren Sproles. One day to become one of the NFL’s top all-purpose backs, Sproles ran for nearly 2,000 yards in 2003. Quarterback Ell Roberson ran for almost a 1,000 more. The Wildcats ranked in the top 10 both offensively and defensively. A non-conference upset loss to Marshall set them back, and K-State dropped a 24-20 decision to Texas. But the Wildcats won the South and would get a crack at Oklahoma.

So, here’s now the national championship race stood as we entered the first Saturday of December and the conference championship games. The format of the time called for the top two teams in the final rankings to meet in a pre-determined bowl game (the Sugar in 2003).

But there was a catch. A computer system churned out the rankings and there was no appeal to human authority. Moreover, the prestigious AP poll, still the gold standard as far as rankings went, did not commit to recognizing the winner of the Sugar Bowl as the national champion. That was a twist that had loomed large in controversies that followed the 2000 and 2001 seasons but had not yet actually resulted in a divided championship.

In any case, it seemed like the only debate would be whether USC or LSU would get the chance to play Oklahoma. There was no conference championship game in the Pac-10 yet, so the Trojans could only watch as LSU demolished fifth-ranked Georgia 34-13.

That night, the nation was stunned. Oklahoma not only lost, they went down hard. Kansas State jumped out early and never looked back in a 35-7 blowout win. Now, how would it all shake out?

Oklahoma’s huge regular season numbers had built up such a lead in the computers that there was no way they would fall to #3. Even with the embarrassing loss, the Sooners would get a chance at redemption. LSU came out ahead of USC and would also go to the Sugar Bowl.

But the writers at the AP poll disagreed. They not only had the Trojans in the top 2, they had USC at the top of the heap. A Trojan win in the Rose Bowl would make the odds of a split title very high.

Michigan and Ohio State led the race to see who USC’s opponent in Pasadena would be. The Buckeyes were the defending national champions and ranked #2 in the preseason polls. The Wolverines opened the season ranked fourth. And both would live up to high expectations.

Ohio State wasn’t statistically dominant, but they ran the ball, played good defense, and executed in close games. One exception was a 17-10 loss at Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes reached the season finale in Ann Arbor with a shot at the Big Ten title.

Michigan had more name players—Chris Perry rolled up over 1,600 yards rushing and was an All-American. Braylon Edwards had over 1,100 yards receiving, catching passes from John Navarre. The Wolverines had an early stumble against Oregon and also lost a tough decision to Iowa, and their Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle, Robert Gallery. But when the season finale arrived, Michigan also controlled its destiny for the Rose Bowl.

Both the Wolverines and Buckeyes were back in the top 5 by the time they played head-to-head. Michigan won 35-21 and got a shot at USC. Ohio State would still get a nod to play Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.

No one was going to overlook Miami in this era. The Hurricanes had been #1 or #2 each of the last three years, and they started the race in 2003 ranked third. The old Big East Conference that they played in was good this year, with Virginia Tech and Pitt also starting in the top 10.

The Hurricanes still had one of the country’s best defenses, with safety Sean Taylor intercepted an astonishing 10 passes. The offense slipped with the loss of quarterback Ken Dorsey, but the presence of All-American tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. still helped Miami score enough points to win.

In the early part of October, Miami met their in-state rival and future ACC rival, Florida State. The Seminoles were up to #5 in the polls by the time of the October 11 meeting. Miami met the challenge, won 22-14 and nudged up to #2 in the polls by the time November arrived.

But a road trip to Blacksburg proved disastrous. Virginia Tech pummeled the ‘Canes 31-7 and moved into the top 5 themselves. A week later, Pitt turned around and nipped the Hokies in a classic 31-28 game, with the Panthers getting a huge game from All-American receiver Larry Fitzgerald. By the time it all circled around, Miami was coming to Pitt on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with the conference title on the line. The Hurricanes won 28-14.

Miami was headed for the Orange Bowl. And, in a surprise, the bowl matchups fell out such that it would be a re match with Florida State. The Seminoles won the ACC, then beat 11th-ranked Florida 38-34 on Thanksgiving Saturday. There were no national implications in the Orange Bowl, but there was a Top 10 finish on the line—to say nothing of the considerable pride that this rivalry fueled.

The Hurricanes continued their mastery of the Seminoles, with a 16-14 win marking their third win in this rivalry over the course of 14 months. Ohio State knocked off Kansas State 35-28 in the Fiesta Bowl and racked up another top-5 finish.

In the Rose Bowl, USC made it clear there would be controversy involved in this national championship, beating Michigan 28-14 in a game not even as close as that score makes it sound.

That left the battle in New Orleans. LSU had the nation’s best defense. Oklahoma had the third-ranked offense, and the best of any offense in the power conferences. Defense often does win in matchups like this, and that was the case here. The Tigers won 21-14. They hoisted the championship trophy that was guaranteed by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) alliance.

But the writers of the AP poll weren’t rolling over quietly. They stood their ground and voted USC #1.

All in all, it was a strange ending to a strange year. And the LSU/USC split marks the last time college football effectively crowned co-national champions.