The 2003 college football season looked like a walk for Oklahoma. The Sooners were the preseason #1 team and spent the better part of three months looking the part. OU destroyed Texas in the Red River Rivalry by a 65-13 count. Oklahoma faced ranked opponents in Missouri and Oklahoma State and won by a combined 86-22 score. Sooner quarterback Jason White won the Heisman Trophy and they finished the regular season undefeated.
But this was the day when the Big 12 actually did have twelve teams and that meant a conference championship game. And on a December night in Kansas City, the Sooners showed up completely flat and were not only beaten by Kansas State, they were humiliated. OU lost 35-7 and instead of crowning a great national champion, the 2003 season would descend into debate and an unsatisfying ending.
College football’s core problem was not the lack of a playoff, as critics always assume every time there’s a problem, but to flawed methodology in selecting the top two teams. The issues were twofold.
The first was that the national rankings that picked the national championship game opponents were heavily influenced by computer rankings—much more so than would be the case in future years. The second problem is one that persists today and causes needless controversy—there is no rule simply saying that a team must win a conference championship before they are eligible to play for a national title.
Oklahoma’s lead in the computers was so large that the Kansas State loss didn’t matter. OU was not only in the top two, they were still #1. It assured them a berth in the Sugar Bowl game that would decide the national title.
USC and LSU were the one-loss teams that closed the regular season on a strong run. The Trojans, coached by Pete Carroll, were the #1 team in the AP poll and their only loss had come at triple overtime at Cal, a team then quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers. LSU was coached by Nick Saban and had lost only to Florida and was coming off a big 34-13 win over defending SEC champ Georgia in their own conference championship game.
The computers didn’t like USC as much as the voters did, and the Trojans ended up third in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings that created the championship game.
Predictably, the results satisfied no one. USC rolled Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and the AP, not bound to choose the winner of the designated “championship game”, voted the Trojans national champs. LSU knocked off Oklahoma in a 21-14 yawner in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers got the official BCS trophy.
Carroll and Saban have been the two coaches whose programs have dominated college football from 2003 to the present day in 2013, including Saban’s dynastic run at Alabama. There were two different Coach of the Year awards to be handed out, ESPN’s Home Depot award and the Bear Bryant Award. Appropriately enough in 2003, Carroll and Saban split honors. Their teams should have been able to play head-to-head for a national title.