College Football National Championship Lore: Alabama & LSU

We’re down to one game for the college football national championship as Alabama meets LSU tonight in the BCS National Championship Game (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). Another year will take its place in college football history, not just who wins the national championship, but entire package of major bowl games that serves as the centerpiece of the sport. As part of the Notebook’s BCS Finale Day, historical articles with college football themes are being featured throughout. In this article I want to take a brief look back on two seasons that have particular relevance tonight.

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Those seasons are 1978 and 2003. The most obvious relevance they have is that Alabama and LSU won the respective championships in those years. But if we look at all the major bowls, there are some similar themes. There were controversial rematches in both years. There was fervent dispute about the value of a conference championship and of head-to-head play. And on a geographic note, both titles were won in New Orleans. Here’s how college football’s biggest games in those years shook out…

Alabama came into the Sugar Bowl ranked #2 and set to get a crack at top-ranked Penn State. This was seen as the game that would settle the national title once and for all, but USC had a case to make. The Trojans were playing fifth-ranked Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and USC had beaten Alabama head-to-head back in September and closed the regular season with a flurry of quality wins over Washington, UCLA and Notre Dame.

The Irish were playing Houston in the Cotton Bowl in what would be the final college game for Joe Montana. And the Orange Bowl was a game with a unique twist. Nebraska had upset Oklahoma in November 17-14, when the Sooners fumbled the ball away seven times. The game knocked OU from the #2 spot and opened the door for Alabama.

One week later Nebraska was stunned by Missouri and created a co-championship in the old Big Eight. Because the had beaten OU head-to-head, the Huskers still had the conference’s automatic spot in the Orange Bowl, but the selection committee decided to create a rematch—much to the fury of Nebraska. It wouldn’t impact the national title, but it would settle a lot of bragging rights in flyover country.

The events of New Year’s Day 1978 were among the best in the 18-year high point of January 1 football, chronicled in my book The Last New Year’s. Montana led Notre Dame back from a 34-12 deficit and won the game on a last-play touchdown pass to Kris Haines, but not before the quarterback had to go to the locker room and wolf down chicken soup to deal with the flu on a bitterly cold day in Dallas.

On the other end of the day’s schedule, Oklahoma took care of the ball and beat Nebraska 31-24, a game the Cornhuskers only made close with a couple late touchdowns. In between there was a lot of drama on the goal line. Alabama prevailed in a defensive battle when they stopped Penn State three straight times from the 1-yard line and preserved a 14-7 win. USC beat Michigan 17-10, but the game was marked by a controversial touchdown when Trojan running back Charles White went up and over the pile close to the goal line, clearly fumbled before he broke the plane and had it recovered by Michigan.

The play was ruled a touchdown in a call that would have had no chance of standing up in an instant replay era. How did voters settle the national title? They split it. The writer rewarded Alabama for beating the #1 team and not needing officiating controversy. USC got its due from the coaches, thanks to the head-to-head win. I’d have voted for USC in a heartbeat. If beating a team on the field—their own field in Birmingham, 24-14 in this case—doesn’t settle it, what does?

2003: USC was at the center of the storm again this year and a debate was raging about whether a team should have to win its conference championship. Oklahoma had been #1 all year and was nothing short of dominating, with quarterback Jason White on his way to the Heisman Trophy. Then the Sooners were stunned by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game—and not stunned by a little bit, but in a 35-7 beatdown as bad as the score makes it sound. Yet their computer rating was so strong that they still went to the championship game anyway.

LSU was #2, having just routed Arkansas and then beaten Georgia to win the SEC title (sound familiar?). But USC was ranked #1 in both polls, but lacked the computer mojo to get a ticket to the Sugar Bowl, where the title would be settled (from 1998-2006 there was no separate “BCS National Championship Game”, the top two teams met in a pre-designated bowl game).

USC being sent to the Rose Bowl to play #4 Michigan was just one of the gripes fans had in that year. Miami, in its final year as a member of the Big East was paired up with Florida State in the Orange Bowl, a game that was not only a rematch from the regular season, but a prelude to their opening game the following year.

With Ohio State available as an at-large team, fans had expected to get a Miami-Ohio State rematch of the national championship game the prior year. Instead an unsatisfying rematch, along with a dry Kansas State-Ohio State game in the Fiesta Bowl was the result.

Ohio State rolled over K-State, while Miami won a good Orange Bowl game over Florida State 16-14. USC made its case to the AP voters with a 28-14 win over Michigan, where Matt Leinhart threw three touchdown passes, built up a 21-0 lead for the Trojans and Michigan never got within two touchdowns thereafter.

And for fans without a vested rooting interest in the game, the Sugar Bowl was anti-climactic. LSU loosened up a 7-7 tie with a touchdown in the second quarter and then saw defensive end Marcus Spears, now of the Dallas Cowboys, intercept White and take it twenty yards to the house. The game ended 21-14 and it never felt like OU was going to make a move. The LSU defense sacked White seven times, intercepted him twice and sent him to Heisman obscurity.

As they had in 1978, voters split the national championship. I’d have preferred USC to get into the championship game over Oklahoma, because I believe that if you don’t win a conference crown you shouldn’t play for the national crown. But I also think that some of the defense of the Trojans was misguided.

The critique of the system focused on how we could possibly let a team that finished first in both human polls end up third overall? But isn’t that an indictment of the people doing the voting? If the computers were rating USC’s schedule as that bad, shouldn’t that get more weight than human voting? And if we were that satisfied with the job voters were doing, what was the point of this whole process in the first place? I’d have still picked USC to be the opponent for LSU, but because they were the best conference champion available, not because the opinions of writers and coaches who can’t possibly see every team play should matter that much.

Here we are in 2011. Back in New Orleans, another rematch at hand, more debate about whether a conference championship should be a prerequisite.  I think it’s safe to say there won’t be a split title—Oklahoma State needed to blow out Stanford for that to happen, and while I consider that an unreasonable requirement, it’s a political reality. LSU or Alabama will be the undisputed champion. Another chapter of college football history finishes tonight in the Bayou.