The 2004 college football season opened with USC and Oklahoma as the clear favorites, ranked 1-2 in the preseason polls. The regular season ended with USC and Oklahoma as clear favorites, still 1-2 in the polls, undefeated and poised for a national championship battle. But when the final ending came, it was clear the Trojans and Sooners were on different levels—a stunning USC rout meant the Trojans were repeat national champions—and unlike 2003, they wouldn’t be sharing the honor with anyone.
Matt Leinart threw 33 touchdown passes against just six interceptions, completing 65 percent of his passes at 8.1 yards-per-attempt. Leinart won the Heisman Trophy. Reggie Bush ran for over 900 yards and caught 43 passes. Lendale White rushed for over 1,000 yards. The defense had All-Americans in defensive lineman Shaun Cody and linebacker Matt Grootegoed.
USC would get a challenge in the Pac-10 from Cal. The Golden Bears had a senior quarterback by the name of Aaron Rodgers, but he wasn’t even the focal point of the offense. J.J. Arrington ran for over 2,000 yards and Cal ranked in the top eight nationally for both offense and defense.
The Trojans and Golden Bears played on October 9 and USC’s 23-17 win was their stiffest test of the season. Both teams easily blew out ranked Arizona State. USC’s undefeated season sent them to the Orange Bowl, which was designated to host the 1 vs. 2 national championship game under the system as it existed then. Cal finished with just the one loss to USC, was ranked #4 in the final polls, and was hoping to be chosen as the replacement team for the Trojans in the Rose Bowl.
Oklahoma had a prolific offense of their own. Jason White had numbers comparable to Leinart, with a 35/9 TD-INT ratio, a 65 percent completion rate and 8.2 yards-per-attempt. OU had a spectacular running back in the great Adrian Peterson, who rolled up over 1,900 yards and joined Arrington on the All-America list. Peterson ran behind Outland Trophy-winning offensive tackle Jamaal Brown.
The challenger to OU in the Big 12 was Texas. Vince Young was emerging as a star behind center, and the Longhorn quarterback ran for over 1,000 yards in addition to his passing numbers. Cedric Benson produced over 1,800 rushing yards in the more traditional way. And Derrick Johnson won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
On that same October 9 afternoon that USC was playing Cal, Oklahoma and Texas played their annual rivalry game in Dallas. OU posted a 12-0 shutout. Both the Sooners and Longhorns knocked off competitive teams from Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
Oklahoma finished undefeated and was set to play USC in the Orange Bowl. Texas finished with one loss and was ranked #6. And in a controversial decision, the Longhorns were chosen ahead of Cal to fill the Rose Bowl spot that was vacated by USC. The fact there were only four major bowl games (Orange, Sugar, Rose, Fiesta) and the need to honor other automatic qualifiers, meant that Cal fell out of the major bowl picture completely.
USC and Oklahoma might have gone wire-to-wire in the top two poll spots, but they weren’t the only undefeated teams in the country. Auburn came as a surprise out of the SEC. The Tigers had the best defense in the nation, led by Thorpe Award-winning defensive back Carolos Rodgers. Jason Campbell completed 70 percent of his passes, threw 20 touchdowns, and played mistake-free football. Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown combined to rush for over 2,000 yards.
Auburn wasn’t considered the favorite in the SEC when the season began. Georgia was ranked third in the opening polls and LSU, the defending co-national champion with USC, was fourth. But Auburn edged LSU 10-9 on September 18, then blew out 10th-ranked Tennessee 34-10 on October 2. Georgia had a good team, with current ESPN analyst David Pollack winning the Lombardi Award as a linebacker/defensive end. But the Dawgs, after rising to #3, lost to Tennessee in October. And when they faced Auburn head-to-head between the hedges, it was the Tigers coming up with a 24-6 win. Auburn ultimately sealed their undefeated season, SEC title and Sugar Bowl bid by beating Tennessee a second time in the conference championship game.
And the parade of undefeated teams isn’t done yet. The Mountain West and WAC had perfect regular season teams and Conference USA had someone make a good run at it.
The highest-scoring offense in the country was Bobby Petrino’s Louisville, the Cardinals went 10-1, and were ranked #7 in the final regular season polls. The second-best offense belonged to Boise State. The Broncos ran the table and finished #10 when the regular season ended. Louisville and Boise State were paired up to meet in the Liberty Bowl.
Utah would get more respect. The Utes had a year that got head coach Urban Meyer the Florida job when the regular season was over and made quarterback Alex Smith the #1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Smith completed 68 percent of his passes, with a 32/4 TD-INT ratio and Utah ranked third nationally in scoring. More importantly, the Utes were undefeated. And, ranked #5, in the final poll, they got a bid to the Fiesta Bowl to compete on the main stage.
Football in the East was going through a lot of changes. Virginia Tech and Miami had packed up, left the Big East, and began playing in the ACC. Both teams got right into the race in their new conference, along with perennial mainstay Florida State.
The Seminoles and Hurricanes were ranked 5-6 to start the year, and Miami won a good 16-10 game when they played head-to-head in early September. Miami also handed Louisville their only loss, a 41-38 Thursday Night thriller in mid-October. Florida State hammered a Virginia team that had risen to #6 in the polls. But both the ‘Noles and ‘Canes had key stumbles, FSU losing to Maryland and Miami falling to North Carolina.
Virginia Tech just quietly plugged away. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster produced the second-best unit in the nation, led by defensive back Jimmy Williams and his five interceptions. Bryan Randall was an efficient quarterback. The Hokies knocked off sixth-ranked West Virginia in October. VT won their rivalry game with Virginia on Thanksgiving Saturday. And the Hokies concluded the year by going to Miami for the final regular season game and churning out a 16-10 win. With the ACC not yet having gone to a league championship game, that gave Virginia Tech the conference title. They were chosen by the Sugar Bowl to face Auburn.
The conference realignment left the Big East in a badly weakened state, while still holding an automatic bid to the major bowls. That worked to the advantage of Pitt. The Panthers did nothing that really stood out. Tyler Palko had a nice year at quarterback and receiver Greg Lee was productive. But Pitt ranked in the low 40s nationally for both offense and defense. Even so, no one else in the Big East stood out. Four teams ended up sharing the league title. Thanks to close wins at home over Boston College and West Virginia, Pitt won the tiebreakers and, at 8-3, was headed to the Fiesta Bowl to meet Utah.
In the Big Ten, the race for the Rose Bowl was a lively three-team affair. Michigan opened as the narrow favorite, ranked #8 in the preseason polls, while Ohio State was #9. The Wolverines were loaded with star talent—four first-team All-Americans in wide receiver Braylon Edwards, offensive lineman David Baas and both Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor in the secondary. That’s in addition to Michael Hart running for over 1,400 yards and a future pro in quarterback Chad Henne.
Michigan lost an early game to Notre Dame, but otherwise began rolling through Big Ten play, including a 30-17 win over Iowa. The Hawkeyes, led by a good defense and strong offensive line play, stayed in the hunt themselves.
Wisconsin stayed in the national picture longer than anyone else in the conference. One of the country’s top defenses was led by end Erasmus James. The Badgers beat Ohio State on the road in October, signaling that the Buckeyes would not live up to expectations this year. Wisconsin won a dramatic game at then-undefeated Purdue in mid-October, triggering a Boilermaker fall from grace. The Badgers were 9-0 and got as high as #4 in the polls.
But the UW offense was a serious problem, ranking just 99th in points scored. They came completely undone in a 49-14 loss at Michigan State. That set up a final weekend where Michigan would go to Ohio State, while Wisconsin traveled to Iowa. The Buckeyes salvaged their season with a surprisingly easy 37-21 win that opened the door to Pasdaena. But Wisconsin again lost badly, 30-7. Iowa and Michigan shared the league title, with the Wolverines getting the Rose Bowl nod.
There were a lot of compelling matchups on the bowl undercard. Cal, after rightfully grieving over their snub by the Rose Bowl, didn’t get refocused in time and lost 45-31 to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. The Louisville-Boise State game was, as anticipated, an offensive shootout. The Cardinals won 44-40, finished #6 in the polls and took one of the undefeated teams off the board.
In the early part of New Year’s Day, Georgia continued Wisconsin’s fall by beating the Badgers 24-21. The win secured a Top 10 finish for the Dawgs. And Iowa won a 30-25 thriller over LSU on a late touchdown pass. The result sent Iowa into the final top 10 and LSU coach Nick Saban on to the pros for an ill-fated gig with the Miami Dolphins.
The Rose Bowl might have gotten some grief over their selection decision, but no one was griping about the quality of the game Texas and Michigan put on. In a back-and-forth affair, Young led the Longhorns to a 38-37 win, a #5 national finish and high hopes for next season, when the national championship game would be back in Pasadena.
In New Orleans, the country’s two top defenses both did their thing, but Auburn had just enough offense to squeeze out a 16-13 win over Virginia Tech. The Tigers would stay unbeaten. So would Utah, who demolished Pitt 35-7.
Now, it was time for the battle in Miami. The hype, even by the standards of a national championship game had been intense, thanks to the season-long buildup between these two teams and the seemingly even quality of star talent.
But that perception of equality was misguided. What happened in Miami was nothing short of a massacre. USC came out blasting and never stopped. That the Trojans won can’t be considered a surprise. Even a decisive win isn’t more than a modest surprise. But a 55-19 blowout that was all but over by the second quarter? No one saw that coming. And thus, Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans stood alone at the top of the college football world. Even with an unbeaten SEC team sitting out there, no one could really argue that the best team wasn’t the one on top of final the polls.