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Do a Saban during the Sugar Bowl

1/2/2004

NEW ORLEANS -- Somewhere there is a "Coaches Gone Wild" videotape of LSU's Nick Saban dancing like his khaki pants have been dipped in Bananas Foster and set aflame. It happened at a Sugar Bowl function earlier in the week and Tigers players were still talking about it Friday. After all, how many times do you see Mr. Hyperintensity shaking it during a James Brown song?

"If I find it," says Saban of the tape, "I'll burn it."

Saban was downright chirpy Friday, popping one liners, clarifying once and for all that, "I'm a very happy person." He's happily married. Has two happy kids. Couldn't be happier about his team. In short, happy.

Not even news of USC's decisive Rose Bowl victory against Michigan could ruin Saban's mood. He didn't actually watch the game, mostly because it didn't matter to him who won or lost in faraway Pasadena. Why should it? If LSU beats Oklahoma Sunday evening in the Superdome then someone is going to hand Saban a national championship trophy with the Tigers' name on it. That's good enough for him.

"No one has to go home sad in terms of how the whole system has worked out, even if there's co-champs," he says.

As national title "systems" go, this one makes about as much sense as ordering a third Hurricane at Pat O'Brien's. Either way, you wake up with a headache.

You know how this is going to work. ... or not: Because it kicked the maize and blue out of Michigan in the Rose, USC will finish as the No. 1 choice in the AP poll. Meanwhile, the LSU-OU winner will automatically finish atop the coaches poll as BCS champions, no matter how many coaches think the Trojans are the best team in the country.

Saban is sweet on a "bowl-plus" playoff system. Play the bowls, then add a true championship game. That will happen shortly after Saban appears in the sequel of "The Real Cancun," or at least until the present BCS contract expires after the 2006 Rose Bowl.

Until then, we're stuck with this bizarre, quirky, homemade championship process that makes as much sense as a Wunderlich test. The whole thing is wonderfully imprecise, imperfect and exasperating. And I love it.

I'm with Saban. Create some sort of mini-playoff, hope the college presidents sign off on the idea, and join the rest of the 21st century. That said, I refuse to get my Under Armor in a bunch just because there might be two teams with the same forefinger stuck in the air come Monday morning.

USC deserves a national championship. This is an elegant, athletic team that made Michigan look as if the Wolverines were wearing cement cleats. No rational football follower can argue otherwise.

The LSU-OU winner deserves a national championship. The Tigers and Sooners are twins separated at birth. Same aggressive defenses. Underrated offenses. Keenly coached. What's there not to admire?

"The system has always been like that," says voice of reason, LSU senior cornerback Randall Gay. "Controversy has always been there."

Split championships didn't just start falling off the equipment truck this year. Michigan and Nebraska shared titles in 1997. Miami and Washington did the same in 1991, and yet Earth continued to spin on its axis.

The players don't seem to mind. LSU wide receiver Devery Henderson was given the choice between taking his BCS championship and running, or moving on to face USC for a chance at an outright, undisputed national title.

"I don't want it," he says of an extra game. "This is where we wanted to be."

Or as Saban puts it: "The key word there is what's so important about outright?"

This season is the rare exception to the one-winner rule. Three teams -- USC, LSU and Oklahoma -- are separated by slivers, by the width of Bob Stoops' visor brim. Why penalize the Trojans for not being invited to Bourbon Street? Why minimize Sunday's game because of the BCS rankings' shortcomings?

"So really, two teams instead of one can say they're national champions," says Gay. "If we win I'll get a ring and it's not going to say, 'Split National Champions.' I'll have that ring, telling people, 'Look at this.' I'm going to be showing it to everyone."

Of course, he will. The Trojans will do the same with their jewelry. And if it means college football is without a definitive No. 1, that's OK. Celebrate this goofy, compelling season. Do a Saban.

Dance and be happy.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.