Sunday, January 4, 2004

BCS mess overshadows Sugar Bowl

Gannett News Service

NEW ORLEANS - Rose Bowl? What Rose Bowl? USC does not exist. The Associated Press poll is a myth, like the Loch Ness monster. Here, the BCS is king. The Sugar Bowl is the beginning and the end of it. The granddaddy of them all.

It is a most curious national championship game they will play Sunday night. Two teams required to wear blinders, pretending there is no such thing as the USC Trojans.

Two teams here to win it all. Only they already know they can't have it all. They will forever have to share.

What do you do? You feign indifference.

"I was so interested in the USC game," LSU coach Nick Saban said, "that I didn't even watch it."

"All I know," concurred Oklahoma tackle Jamaal Brown, "is Sunday night, somebody here is going to be crowned national champion. Somebody is going to get the crystal football."

Ah, yes. The famous crystal football. But let's be honest. Until lately, most people could not have picked out the crystal football in a garage sale.

But since it is the booty awarded by the BCS - and the coaches' poll, since they are required to vote for the BCS winner - LSU and Oklahoma have elevated it to legendary stature. The 37-pound thing has become the Stanley Cup.

Not that you can blame them. Factors beyond their control have rained on their parade. LSU has not won a national championship in 45 years. Think the Tigers want to hear about the USC pass rush?

Just a month ago, Oklahoma was being fondly compared to the finest teams of our time. One loss, and the Sooners are chopped liver. Not even worthy of being in this game.

"It's the nature of people, jumping on and off bandwagons," said center Vince Carter. "I guess we kind of let people down, and they turned against us."

It does not take much to detect the edge in the Oklahoma voices. The anger just beneath the surface. They have had USC up to their earholes. How do you compete with the people's champions?

"Everybody claimed the Dallas Cowboys were America's Team," coach Bob Stoops was saying. "It didn't bother Pittsburgh a whole lot. I don't think it'll bother LSU or Oklahoma.

"You guys," Stoops told the media Saturday, "have made us underdogs the last three or four weeks."

They have one chance to retrieve the adulation they lost. A dominant victory Sunday night. A reminder of why so many thought so highly of them, before they turned into pumpkins against Kansas State.

But then, LSU's defense doesn't give up much. Much more likely is something close, tough. And at the end of the night, a crystal football. Plus a vague sense of something unfinished.

"We can't complain about it," Oklahoma receiver Mark Clayton said. "We have to go out and take care of our business."

Stoops and Saban had their last press conferences Saturday. The questions ranged from the BCS to USC to job prospects in the NFL. Even to whether Stoops would like to play USC next year ("It'd be fantastic").

Everything but questions about the game. So it's gone this bizarre week. Where the combatants have not been asked about victory or defeat as much as how a system should be fixed, so this can't happen again. As if they are participants in an accident, and not a championship.

"They pick 65 teams for the NCAA (basketball) tournament," Saban said, "and then Dick Vitale has a two-hour show on the eight teams that got left out."

"It's never going to be perfect." Stoops said. "It doesn't need to be."

Their message was clear. There is no fail-safe way to decide a champion. So maybe people can stop slinging mud at the way they'll do it Sunday night.

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