OU-USC may be the best title game ever

Originally Published: December 29, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

On Nov. 6, 1869, a group of boys from Rutgers and Princeton tussled on a New Jersey field and called it football. The tapes are lost, but Keith Jackson is believed to have called his first fummm-bllllllle that day.

On Jan. 4th in Miami, we could witness the apex of 135 years of gridiron evolution. We could see college football polished to its brightest sheen, played at its highest level, amid its grandest buildup.

That's an outrageous amount of hype to lay on a single game, yet it just might be appropriate. We can debate whether Oklahoma-USC in the Orange Bowl stands to be the biggest bowl game of all time -- but in terms of star players, accomplished coaches, old-school tradition and present-day dominance, there is no doubting its justified place in the argument.

If Anyone Knows ...
If anyone can make a definitive statement about the best bowl game ever, it would be the undisputed Voice of College Football, ABC's Keith Jackson.

His vote for the best he's seen: Alabama-Penn State in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. And the play he remembers most from the Crimson Tide's 14-7 victory was not Alabama's famous goal-line stand, but what came afterward.

"Alabama is backed up," Jackson recalled. "They've had their magnificent goal-line stand, but now they've got to punt it out of their own end zone. The Alabama punter shanks the punt out of bounds, at around their own 26, but Penn State's got 12 on the field.

"Alabama's punter gets a chance to do it again and hits a 51-yarder. And Penn State never gets close after that."

(For the record, Jackson loves the USC-Oklahoma Orange Bowl matchup. A California resident and admitted fan of the "Western teams," Jackson gives the edge to the Trojans.)

-- Pat Forde
"There hasn't been a bowl game like this that I can remember," said a man who has seen a few huge ones, former Sooners coaching legend Barry Switzer. "This is special. I think this is the biggest one."

Former Trojans coaching hero John Robinson, likewise a veteran of a few Armageddon games, lines up alongside Switzer.

"They talk about that Oklahoma-Nebraska game (in 1971) being the Game of the Century," Robinson said. "I think this definitely has the makings of another one like that. I don't know if you can get a better prelude."

You can't. The prelude is unparalleled.

When else have two Heisman Trophy winners played against each other as collegians?

Answer: Never. When Matt Leinart and Jason White hook up in Pro Player Stadium, history will be made.

When else have 80 percent of the top five Heisman vote getters convened on the same field?

Answer: Never. Between Leinart, White, Reggie Bush and Adrian Peterson, we have more marquee names than "Ocean's Twelve."

When else have two teams with a combined 13 wire-service national titles met in a bowl game to decide another championship?

Answer: Never. USC, with six, reeks of old money. Oklahoma, with seven, reeks even more.

When was the last time two coaches who already own national titles met in a de facto championship bowl game?

Answer: Nineteen years ago, when Barry Switzer and Oklahoma defeated Joe Paterno and Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Pete Carroll and Bob Stoops haven't been in their current positions for long, but they haven't wasted any time winning titles, either.

When else have two teams gone the entire season ranked 1-2 in every poll, then met in a bowl game?

Answer: Never. This was the game everyone wanted to see in August, and it's the game everyone is going to see in January.

So you can understand why it's hard to find peers for this Orange Bowl. There have been six matchups of unbeaten, untied teams in bowl games in the last 30 years. Four of them are worth noting, but none measures up on paper to this game.

You might mention Miami-Ohio State and their Fiesta Bowl classic from just two years ago, but the underdog Buckeyes had the benefit of sneaking in from slightly off radar (No. 13 preseason, and not a permanent top five team until November). You could nominate the Miami-Alabama 1993 Sugar Bowl, but the Crimson Tide was of similar Cinderella status to Ohio State '02 -- and besides, we're talking about "only" nine combined wire-service national titles for those schools at that point. You can discuss the Penn State-Miami Fiesta Bowl of 1987, when the Hurricanes wore combat fatigues around Tempe and Vinny Testaverde kept throwing interceptions, but Miami was still a nascent powerhouse at that point. The same argument diminishes the Miami-Nebraska 1984 Orange Bowl classic, when the Hurricanes upset one of the most overpowering teams in college history.

To find a worthy competitor to this Orange Bowl you have to trace back 31 years, to New Year's Eve 1973. That's when Notre Dame met Alabama in a Sugar Bowl still vividly remembered by all who saw it.

The game matched two powerhouse institutions, led by two coaching giants. Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian was in the twilight of his career, on his way to retirement after the following season. Alabama's Bear Bryant was in his final decade, but at the height of his power. The Crimson Tide was ranked No. 1, the Fighting Irish No. 3. Tulane Stadium could scarcely contain all the tradition and anticipation.

The game itself, a 24-23 Notre Dame victory, was a thriller, with six lead changes. History has wrapped it in a gauzy softness that obscures the startlingly sloppy pay: each side missed an extra point, Notre Dame missed two field goals, and there were nine fumbles -- five of them lost.

We'll have to wait and see whether this game is played on a higher plane. But by every unit of measurement, the Sooners and Trojans are extraordinarily well-matched.

USC has been ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for 17 straight weeks, the third-longest streak ever, and have been in the AP top 10 their past 31 games. The Sooners have been in the top 10 for 51 of their past 52 games, dating back to October 2000.

Both have had dominant 2004 seasons. While occasionally pushed -- USC by Cal and Stanford, Oklahoma by Texas A&M and Oklahoma State -- neither needed any come-from-behind heroics in the last possession to remain unbeaten. Each team entered the final six minutes of every game with the lead, and each trailed just once entering the fourth period.

"Both teams are going to be pressured, and they haven't been pressured much," Robinson said. "In the last two years, SC has only been pressured by Cal. SC hasn't had to come up with one of those big finishes to win. ... Those great offenses can get jittery when it's not all going their way. That might be the case in this game."

But how can you tell the offenses -- or the defenses -- apart? Stylistically they're different, yet their statistical profiles are nearly identical. USC averages 442.8 yards per game offensively and 36.8 points; Oklahoma averages 469.6 yards and 36.1 points. USC allows only 271.6 yards and 12.5 points; Oklahoma surrenders just 280.2 yards and 13.7 points.

The quarterbacks with the matching Heismans also have near-matching stats over their two-year starting runs as the most acclaimed QBs in the country. In that time, Leinart has completed 506 passes, White 509. Leinart has thrown 779 passes, White 805. Leinart has thrown for 6,546 yards, White for 6,807. Leinart has 66 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, White has 73 and 16. Leinart is 23-1 as the starting QB over two seasons, White is 24-2.

The running backs are an intriguing contrast in style. Bush and LenDale White are about as different as can be -- White the between-the-tackles hammer, Bush the open-space scatback who can kill a team running, receiving or returning kicks. Their combined rushing total of 1,818 yards nearly equals the work of Oklahoma freshman Peterson. He's a classic I-formation runner, with a beguiling combination of speed and strength and preternatural vision and feet. But don't forget the Sooners' other back, Kejuan Jones, who had 500 rushing yards, five touchdowns and 20 receptions.

And then there are the competing units. USC is working on a school-record streak of 38 straight games scoring 20 or more points. Since lockdown cornerback Antonio Perkins returned from injury, Oklahoma has given up a total of six points in its last three games.

On offense, the Sooners have rolled seven straight games scoring 30 or more points and averaged 37 points per game in that time. The Trojans' defense, meanwhile, ranks nationally in the top 10 in every major category: second in scoring defense, second in rush defense, seventh in pass efficiency defense, seventh in total defense and ninth in turnover margin.

Which units crack, and which prevail? Regardless which side gives in, it will be a shock. Neither has succumbed yet to an entire season of challenges.

Both teams had the burden of expectation weighing on them since August, and both have carried on without a slip. Both sides are convinced that a national title is their destiny. Both fan bases believe in their inherent superiority.

Somebody is right. Somebody is wrong. The answer awaits, Jan. 4.

Let the buildup commence to a football classic 135 years in the making.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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