Debates Down South: Was LSU or USC more deserving of being the definitive national champion in 2003?
Yeah, we’re going there.
By “there,” I mean back to the 2003 season, which infamously ended with split national champions. LSU and USC sharing a national title was about as un-American as it got, though obviously it was through no fault of their own. The flawed BCS formula used from 1998-2003 created a monster. It’s a monster that 17 years later, is still worth debating.
If you didn’t just die of shock at the reality that we’re 17 years removed from that, you’re in for a treat today. We’re going to revisit a debate that has frustrated many a college football fan during that time.
Was LSU or USC more deserving of being the definitive national champion?
If you’re an LSU fan simply hoping to come here and read a sentence about how “1 team played in the BCS National Championship and 1 team didn’t,” sorry, this isn’t that easy. It’s never that easy. That’s why we debate.
So let’s go back to a time when the thing that made us most angry was the BCS:
Why was/is this debate
Because the BCS.
After the curtains closed on the Sugar Bowl, two things became official. One was that LSU won the BCS National Championship against Oklahoma. By virtue of the Coaches Poll, which mandated that coaches honor the BCS National Championship winner as the first-place team, 1-loss LSU was inevitably going to claim that title. It didn’t matter that 3 coaches actually went rogue and gave that title to USC.
USC, of course, was No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25. Three days removed from the 1-loss Trojans beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl, they received the top spot from the AP voters.
LSU was the “coaches” winner (really it was the BCS winner) while USC was the AP winner.
Why did this happen? Have I not made myself clear? The BCS made this happen.
Oklahoma was ranked No. 1 in the BCS Poll heading into bowl season. LSU came in at No. 2, which meant they got the chance to face off in the national title game. Irrelevant was the fact that USC was No. 1 in the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll. The BCS computers spit out a No. 3 ranking for the Trojans.
The irony, of course, was that the AP and Coaches Polls put Oklahoma at No. 3 heading into bowl season. Why? Human beings with eyeballs watched the Sooners get trounced 35-7 by Darren Sproles-led Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship. Meanwhile, LSU took down top-5 Georgia for a second time while USC closed the regular season with its 8th consecutive win, all of which were by at least 20 points.
So why didn’t Oklahoma suffer a bigger dip in the BCS?
It was believed that the Sooners, who came into conference championship weekend undefeated, had a loss to give. The BCS formula also didn’t account for margin of victory/defeat, which meant that the Sooners’ 28-point loss to Kansas State was valued equal to USC’s triple-overtime loss to 8-win California (led by Aaron Rodgers). Oklahoma, which held the No. 1 spot in the AP for the entire regular season, was so far ahead of LSU and USC that they wouldn’t be able to make up enough ground that weekend to prevent the Sooners from clinching a spot in the BCS National Championship.
What. A. Mess.
Consider this a reminder why the BCS was so flawed. A system that vowed to end split national champions did anything but that in 2003. (Fortunately, the formula was changed the following year and we didn’t have any split national champions … but we did have undefeated Auburn get left out of the title game the following year).
As for comparing LSU and USC, well, that’s a trip. Both suffered early-season losses to teams that went on to win 8 games. LSU ended the season on an 8-game winning streak, and USC ended the season on a 9-game winning streak. Both teams won BCS bowl games played in their backyards and allowed exactly 14 points to top-4 teams.
But wait. It gets even weirder.
Thanks to some non-geographic nonconference scheduling by both teams, LSU and USC actually had 2 common opponents that year — Arizona and Auburn. LSU beat Arizona by 46 while USC beat Arizona by 45. LSU beat Auburn by 24 while USC beat Auburn by … 23.
You can’t make this stuff up. Actually, this almost feels like some hypothetical that a fan threw out in an attempt to break the computers.
And hey, it worked.
What people said at the time
This was right before debate shows became all the rage, but fear not. There were plenty of takes on this whole debacle.
The final AP Top 25, which was released immediately after LSU’s Sugar Bowl win against Oklahoma, saw USC get 48 first-place votes while LSU got 17 first-place votes. Ironically enough, the Trojans actually picked up 6 first-place votes while LSU lost 4 (the other 2 came from the 2 voters who previously had Oklahoma at No. 1).
Weird it is to realize that those rather lopsided votes weren’t supposed to make ANY difference in the Coaches Poll, which saw LSU finish with the aforementioned 60-3 advantage because of the 3 rogue coaches who didn’t honor the BCS National Championship winner.
If you go back and watch the LSU-Oklahoma game, you’ll pick up on a few things. There’s the on-field stuff. You know, like how Nick Saban’s No. 1 defense held Heisman Trophy winner Jason White and the Sooners’ No. 3 offense to just 154 total yards. White’s final line was putrid — 13-for-37, 102 yards (2.8 yards per attempt), 0 TDs and 2 INTs. LSU star defensive lineman Marcus Spears had more touchdowns than White thanks to his pick-6 to kick off the second half.
After Spears’ score, Brent Musburger said on the call “and suddenly, the Sooners are down 2 touchdowns,” which was his way of saying, “that looks like the dagger against this LSU defense.” It was the dagger. That defense, which was highlighted by guys like Spears, prison guard-turned SEC Defensive Player of the Year Chad Lavalais, Corey Webster and emerging freshman LaRon Landry, was lights out. Standout LSU defensive lineman Marquise Hill said after the game, “We play in the SEC. We’re used to playing smash-mouth football, real football … Jason White wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before.”
That was certainly a postgame feeling for LSU players and fans — the Tigers previously held future No. 1 pick Eli Manning to 14 points — but there was another elephant in the room. How should they feel about splitting a national championship with USC? Lavalais might have had the best quote about that in the postgame press conference:
“It’s like winning the lottery. If you have to share the Power Ball with 1 other person, you wouldn’t complain. That’s still a good deal … but we won’t put co-national champions on our rings.”
The late Stuart Scott’s post-Sugar Bowl SportsCenter intro said it all.
“How sweet the sugar is. But, does a shared title only taste half as good? And what is the BCS doing to fix this thing?”
We knew it would likely be a split national title. After all, why would all of those voters who had USC at No. 1 heading into the postseason suddenly flip their votes when LSU essentially did the same thing the Trojans did?
Let’s rewind a bit because there’s something else that needs to be addressed.
That is, just how close was USC to getting a chance to play for the BCS National Championship instead of LSU? Really close.
On conference championship weekend, LSU beat a Georgia team that was No. 5 in the AP Poll. That improved the Tigers’ all-important strength of schedule from No. 57 to No. 29. USC, meanwhile, beat up on Oregon State. But USC stayed at No. 37 in the BCS strength of schedule rankings for a couple of reasons. One was because Notre Dame, which USC beat, missed out on a 6th win that weekend because it got blown out by Syracuse.
But there was also a game that went into the wee hours of the morning in Hawaii that was make-or-break for USC. Hawaii, which USC beat earlier in the year, needed a win against Boise State to send the Trojans to the title game. But Boise State’s win clinched LSU’s title game berth because it gave the Tigers a 0.32% better strength of schedule. In the pre-bowl BCS standings, LSU had a 0.16-point advantage on USC.
Confused? Don’t be.
Basically what happened was a couple of games that only should have been watched by degenerate gamblers factored into a computer formula that was designed to give an unbiased approach to setting up a national championship.
AP voters didn’t care about those games nearly as much as the computers did. That’s why USC still got twice as many first-place votes (42) as LSU (21). It’s also why Oklahoma, which got all 65 first-place votes in the AP Poll before the conference championships, only got 2 votes after getting dismantled by Kansas State.
As to be expected, however, there suddenly became this need to see LSU and USC face off. After the Sugar Bowl, Tom Rinaldi asked LSU linebacker Lionel Turner how much he’d want to play USC in 1 more game, which prompted the obvious response, “I’d love to have the chance to play USC to see who really is No. 1.”
Um, yeah. We all wanted that.
Remember when Gateway Computers tried to pay $30 million in order to make LSU-USC happen? Of that $30 million, $10 million would have gone to each school (just like a bowl game sponsor) and the company would have donated an additional $10 million to fund scholarships for disadvantaged students. Plus, the winner would have received another $10 million and $1 million worth of Gateway products for academic and athletic department use.
But the NCAA quickly shut that down. The reasoning from late NCAA president Myles Brand was loaded with irony:
“Anyone who believes that higher education would jump at a cynical publicity stunt are mistaken and missing the point. This is exactly the type of inappropriate intrusion that I warned the membership of. It puts all the emphasis on intercollegiate athletics as entertainment and erodes the critical concept that the welfare of the student-athlete is paramount.”
Of course that’s the time the NCAA pretended it wasn’t chasing the almighty dollar because of the “welfare of the student-athlete.”
It’s worth noting that Brand was the same guy who, while serving as the president at Indiana University, didn’t fire Bob Knight immediately after the country saw video footage on CNN of the Indiana coach choking a player in practice (that gave us Brand’s “zero tolerance” policy … which Knight violated and was fired).
Brand represented the NCAA, which had no problem a year earlier when players on the winning team of the Fiesta Bowl had bags of Tostitos ready to pop open at the conclusion of the national championship. (My favorite not-so-subtle bowl brand placement moment was Musberger’s “this one is for all the Tostitos” call at the end of the Auburn-Oregon title game to close 2010.) To think that the NCAA would turn its nose up to properly declaring a national champion because it would “erode the critical concept that the welfare of the student-athlete is paramount” is laughable.
The NCAA also fell back on its rule to not have any games played after Jan. 4 … which ended just 3 years later when Florida and Ohio State faced off for a national title on Jan. 8, 2007 (title games in the Playoff era occurred between Jan. 7-13).
But I digress.
What would have happened if we had actually gotten to see LSU and USC play? If you had asked Lee Corso, he would have told you USC would have beaten LSU anywhere, anytime … as long as it wasn’t played in New Orleans like the Sugar Bowl. Kirk Herbstreit actually called out Corso for changing his mind on that — he apparently didn’t think that way until after the Sugar Bowl — but Herbstreit agreed with that take.
According to them, USC was an all-around better team than LSU. Granted, the ESPN analysts were more passionate about not getting to see that matchup play out, and they demanded change.
The worst take about this debate
“USC was more deserving than LSU because it became a dynasty.”
Woof, that’s bad. If we’re going to use future games to determine past national title winners, we’ll never agree on a definitive champion. You’d have Skip Bayless telling us why LSU losing a September game in 2020 should make us rethink whether the Tigers deserved the 2019 title.
I get that USC won 34 consecutive games after that triple-overtime loss to Rodgers’ Cal squad. But for this argument, the 9-game winning streak is the only thing that matters. Nothing, and I mean nothing, related to USC’s 2004 or 2005 seasons should have any say in whether it deserved to be the definitive champion of the 2003 season.
Those seasons might have confirmed that Matt Leinart, LenDale White and Reggie Bush were pretty darn good and that Pete Carroll knew a thing or two about coaching football, but that’s all irrelevant for 2003.
The point of this debate is to put ourselves in the position of a voter back in 2003. If we were filling out a ballot after the Sugar Bowl, who would get the No. 1 spot?
Sorry, but there are no crystal balls available to make that decision.
The thing I forgot/didn’t know until researching this
I’ll be honest. I forgot a lot of these details. In my defense, I’m pretty sure the 13-year old version of myself just quit watching sports for a solid 2-3 months after the Steve Bartman play was all anyone talked about (he wasn’t to blame for my Cubs choking against the Marlins, but I couldn’t stand the coverage of all of it).
Two things came as news to me when I went down some rabbit holes. Both were related to USC.
Did you know that Bush was the 3rd-leading rusher on USC that year? I know that the guy was only a true freshman and White was obviously phenomenal, but I had no idea that Hershel Dennis (different “Herschel” spelling) had 140 more rushing yards than Bush in 2003. Dennis only had 4 fewer carries than White, who had 13 rushing scores that year.
How Bush only got 15 catches out of the backfield that year is also mind-boggling. Needless to say, the Trojans figured out ways to get him looks post-2003.
On a similar note, I forgot that USC didn’t have anyone finish in the top 5 of the Heisman voting that year. Remember that this is the year in between that 2002-05 stretch that saw USC produce 3 Heisman winners (everyone always forgets about Carson Palmer in 2002). But a team with that aforementioned trio of Leinart, White and Bush with All-American receiver Mike Williams still didn’t crack the top 5. Here’s what the top 10 in Heisman voting looked like in 2003:
- Jason White, Oklahoma QB
- Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt WR
- Eli Manning, Ole Miss QB
- Chris Perry, Michigan RB
- Darren Sproles, Kansas State RB
- Matt Leinart, USC QB
- Philip Rivers, NC State QB
- Mike Williams, USC WR
- Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (OH) QB
- B.J. Symons, Texas Tech QB
Leinart was only a sophomore, and if you recall, we were still 4 years from Tim Tebow becoming the first sophomore to ever win the Heisman (we were also a year from Leinart winning the award).
White barely edged Fitzgerald, which certainly added to the legitimacy of LSU’s performance. Given that detail, it’s somewhat surprising that the Tigers lost first-place AP votes after the Sugar Bowl. Perhaps if Kansas State hadn’t just shown the world that White was mortal, LSU would’ve gotten more credit for that.
Where I stand on this debate
This wasn’t cut and dry for me. I went back and forth several times. Remember that the goal is to decide who was the most deserving “definitive national champion.” This isn’t about who oddsmakers would have favored in a neutral-site matchup. It’s not about whether Leinart was a better college quarterback than Matt Mauck (he was), and it’s not about whether Saban was a better college coach than Carroll (he was).
This is about the résumés, which as I stated earlier, shared all sorts of similarities. That’s why this is so difficult.
But then I thought back to my logic for evaluating Playoff résumés. Given how desperately the 2003 season needed a 4-team Playoff, I thought it would be fitting to apply it to LSU vs. USC.
- Wins vs. Power 5 teams with winning records
- USC — 4
- LSU — 6
- Wins vs. teams ranked in FINAL AP Top 25
- USC — 2
- LSU — 4
- Average margin of victory vs. Power 5 teams (including Notre Dame)
- USC — +22.6
- LSU — +19.3
LSU has a 2-1 advantage there, and I’d argue there really isn’t much difference between beating someone by 22.6 points compared to 19.3 points. Factor in LSU playing twice as many teams in the final AP Top 25 and yeah, you could argue a 3.3-point disadvantage in the “average margin of victory vs. Power 5 teams” category actually favors the Tigers.
Don’t misconstrue what I’m about to say as “USC didn’t play nobody, Paaaaaawl.” Outside of making a kick that would have allowed them to win at Cal, the Trojans did everything in their power to set themselves up to play for a title. Not only did they travel to Notre Dame in nonconference play, but they opened the season at Jordan-Hare Stadium against preseason No. 6 Auburn … and delivered a 23-0 beatdown.
In my opinion, USC absolutely deserved to play for a national title instead of Oklahoma. I’ll argue that forever, and I know I’m not alone in that.
But again, everything outside of USC’s control bounced the wrong way. It wasn’t just the Hawaii loss to Boise State. In addition to Auburn and Notre Dame both disappointing by finishing unranked, Washington State was the only other Pac-12 team that finished ranked. As a result, only 2 of USC’s victories in the entire 2003 season came against teams that finished with 9-plus wins.
Meanwhile, LSU closed the 2003 season with 4 (!) consecutive victories against teams that finished with 9-plus wins. In total, LSU beat 5 teams that finished with at least 9 wins.
That’s why LSU would have gotten my vote.
I get why it happened, but I don’t agree with the belief from voters that “well, USC was my No. 1 team heading into the Rose Bowl, and they won, so I’m not changing my vote.” You have to look at the entire résumé. If there are voters who made their decisions after watching the Rose Bowl, that defeats the purpose of having a “final” poll.
I’m not sitting here saying that strength of schedule should have been determined by whether Hawaii beat Boise State, but come on. LSU had the better résumé and that’s supposed to be what matters. If it wasn’t about the games and the quality of opponents — based on what we learned after watching them for an entire year — then we should have just crowned a national champion based on preseason polls.
It’s silly to think LSU’s pre-bowl ranking factored into voters’ decisions more than, you know, the actual résumé. In the same way that the system failed Auburn in 2004, it failed all of us in 2003. Perhaps in hindsight, it’s a good thing that those things happened because they did ultimately lead to change.
LSU might be considered “co-national champs” or just “national champs” depending on where you look, but either way, the Tigers were deserving of being called college football’s best. Go figure that the 2007 title also came in controversial fashion.
Man, no wonder LSU didn’t leave anything up for debate in 2019.