The 2004 college football season was marked by two teams that opened the year determined to find vindication, for very different reasons. The USC Trojans and Oklahoma Sooners opened the season 1-2 in the polls, finished it the same way and built to a championship conclusion in Miami.
USC had been voted a share of the 2003 national title, although the Trojans believed they were robbed of the chance to play LSU for an outright crown. Pete Carroll had returned the USC program to national prominence two years earlier and they were stacked for a run at a no-doubt-about-it title.
Matt Leinart was at quarterback and on his way to a Heisman Trophy in December. Running back Reggie Bush would win the same award one year later. Four defensive starters made first-team All-American.
Overall, an astonishing 53 players on this team, at various stages of their careers, would go on to play in the NFL. The Trojans were so stacked that they could have top receiver Mike Williams declared ineligible and not miss a beat.
USC played a road-neutral game against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, to begin the year. The Trojans won 24-13, and then won a pair of easy games over Colorado State and BYU, before facing their two hardest challenges of the year against the Pac-10 teams of northern California.
Stanford led USC 28-17 before the Trojans rallied with two touchdowns and a 31-28 win. The game with Cal was even tougher. The Bears were led by senior quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and Cal trailed just 23-17 late in the game and had a 1st-and-goal on the 9-yard line. A big sack from defensive tackle Manuel Wright was the key play in a stand that preserved USC’s win in a game that would prove to settle the conference championship.
USC blasted 15th-ranked Arizona State, and rolled over Washington and Washington State. A bad weather trip to Oregon State was difficult and the Trojans trailed 13-0 early before turning it around to win 28-20. A victory over Arizona wrapped up the conference title, and USC then closed out their perfect regular season with a hard-fought win over UCLA, behind 335 all-purpose yards from Bush, and then beat up Notre Dame.
Oklahoma’s desire for redemption came from having been the dominant team throughout almost all of the 2003 season, and then falling apart at the end. The Sooners lost the Big 12 title to Kansas State in a 35-7 blowout, but OU’s lead in the computer rankings so large that they hung on to #2 and got to play LSU for the national championship—a game the Sooners also lost.
OU had future pros like Jamaal Brown at offensive tackle and Mark Clayton at receiver. Quarterback Jason White was back after his ’03 Heisman campaign. But no one electrified Norman like an incoming freshman, running back Adrian Peterson. A 1,925-yard opening campaign set a new NCAA record for freshmen, and started what continues to be an almost-certain Hall of Fame career in the NFL.
The Sooners rolled through their first four games, and then faced #5 Texas. Bob Stoops’ defense came up big in a 12-0 win that gave Oklahoma control of the Big 12 race. They were challenged in a tough 38-35 win at Oklahoma State, and again in a 42-35 victory at Texas A&M, but nothing could keep the Sooners from the Big 12 championship game. Stoops’ team got the first part of its redemption with a 42-3 blowout of Colorado.
Before the USC-Oklahoma national championship battle could commence, both teams had to turn back a compelling argument made by SEC champion Auburn. The Tigers had also gone undefeated and had played a tougher schedule than either the Trojans or Sooners. It was argued that Auburn was victimized only by having ranked lower when the season began, and it was hard to say they were wrong.
Auburn had to settle for going to the Sugar Bowl and hoping that enough AP voters—which did automatically recognize the winner of the BCS-designated title game—would rebel against the system, the same they had for USC a year earlier.
The worst possible outcome took place at the Sugar Bowl. Auburn beat Virginia Tech, but it was in unimpressive fashion. The Tigers were still undefeated and in the nation’s best conference (though this was nowhere near as clear-cut as it would become within the next ten years), but the lackluster Sugar Bowl win wasn’t going to inspire anyone to give them a piece of the title.
Thus we came to Miami, where the Orange Bowl would settle the national championship. Oklahoma was a one-point favorite coming in, and scored on their first offensive possession to take a 7-0 lead. USC answered when Leinart found tight end Dominique Boyd to tie it.
The swing moment of the Orange Bowl came when a special teams error by Oklahoma gave USC the ball at the 6-yard line. An easy touchdown unleashed the floodgates. Leinart hit Dwyane Jarret with a 54-yard touchdown pass, and the lead grew to 28-7 in the blink of an eye. By halftime it was 38-10. By the middle of the fourth quarter it was 55-10. Oklahoma scored nine cosmetic points at the end and the final score was 55-19.
Sports can take drama away as quickly as it seems to promise it. The Massacre In Miami was just such an example. After a year of buildup focusing on these two teams, after peripheral controversy, with two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks on the field and with the Las Vegas consensus having the game a virtual pick’em, the suspense lasted little more than a quarter.
The Massacre In Miami might have denied us suspense, and the flaws in the system denied Auburn its fair chance to lose on the field, but we were left with the image of enduring greatness. There was no doubt who the best team was in the 2004 college football season, as the USC Trojans won their second straight national title—and this time they left no doubt.