USC No. 1 -- and plans to stay that way

Originally Published: December 7, 2003
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Congratulations, Bud Selig, you're off the hook for the All-Star Game tie.

The baseball commissioner is looking like Winston Churchill next to the six commissioners responsible for concocting a system that prevented the No. 1 team in college football from playing in the national championship game.

"The polls are clear," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "There's not even a question as to who the No. 1 team in the country is."

The Trojans are No. 1, but they will play in the Rose Bowl against No. 4 Michigan. No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Oklahoma will play in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.

College football will survive that. It will survive a system designed to avoid regular-season rematches that is pitting Florida State against Miami in the Orange Bowl. College football may even survive a system in which the No. 1 team could win its bowl game and be prevented from winning the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. The American Football Coaches Association signed a contract to award its championship to the winner of the BCS championship game.

On the day that's supposed to set the stage for the autumn version of March Madness, college football embarrassed itself. Between Canes-Noles II and the ban of the Trojans from winning the coaches poll, I can't wait to see what else the BCS simultaneously wants and prevents from happening.

(Boy, am I glad we sponsor that poll.)

Carroll had the chance to vote in the poll and turned it down.

"Think about that," Carroll said. "My vote would have gone against us."

On the day that's supposed to set the stage for the autumn version of March Madness, college football embarrassed itself. Between Canes-Noles II and the ban of the Trojans from winning the coaches poll, I can't wait to see what else the BCS simultaneously wants and prevents from happening.

On the day that USC reached No. 1 for the first time since 1981, the Trojans found out that they wouldn't be playing the BCS Championship Game at the Sugar Bowl. They sat quietly as John Saunders of ABC asked Carroll how he felt about not playing in the national championship game.

As if there's only one.

Carroll stated the obvious. Since the No. 1 team is playing in the Rose Bowl, there are two national championship games.

"That's the marketing aspect," Carroll said of Saunders' multiple references. "That's what they've got to do to promote the game. If we're No. 1 and playing against No. 4, a great team like Michigan, I guess I'm marketing, too. But that's what logic tells you."

Carroll isn't greedy. He will take the Associated Press trophy and add it to the others in Heritage Hall. The Trojans have won the AP poll three times. The nuances of split national championships are lost on Carroll's players. There have been 10 splits in the last half-century, most recently between Michigan and Nebraska in 1997. That one helped midwife the current system, which is all the current players know.

"Like Frostee said," said Carroll, referring to defensive end Frostee Rucker, "will we get the crystal football or won't we?"

Rucker referred to the trophy awarded the winner of the BCS championship game. Carroll reassured him.

"We're going to get a real big trophy, Frostee," Carroll told him.

The Trojans watched the selection show Sunday in silence. Their only outward reaction came in an eruption of laughter when Terry Bowden prefaced a question to Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables by saying that Kansas State "pretty much whupped you."

Otherwise, the players sat and watched quietly. Even Carroll got tripped up by the turn of events. Carroll's 14-year-old son Nathan combed the Internet on Sunday morning for news, and informed his father that USC had finished first in both polls.

"I was all fired up about being No. 1," Carroll said. "He said, 'No, you don't get it.'"

Carroll called it "wrong" that the Notre Dame-Syracuse and Boise State-Hawaii games had some effect on who plays in the national championship game. Cornerback Will Poole said he felt slighted by not getting to the Sugar Bowl, but not very much.

"I learned a little about life in general," Poole said. "You can't let a computer make decisions for you. Computers are going to take over. The next thing you know, everybody is going to be out of a job. Computers are going to play football. If you let computers run the world, what are humans going to do?"

The Trojans understand the other pluses. Instead of traveling across the country to play for the national championship, or instead of playing in the Rose Bowl without a chance for the national championship, USC plays in Pasadena with a chance to finish No. 1.

No one has to travel. Freshman tailback Reggie Bush, from the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, sounded relieved because his family will see him play.

"It was shaky whether they would be able to make it to New Orleans," he said. "Now it's just a two-hour drive instead of a very expensive plane ride."

For the USC fans who wanted to go to the Sugar Bowl, consider this: USC would have gotten 16,000 tickets to the Sugar Bowl. The school will get 32,000 to the Rose. The system helped the Trojans, too. If Kansas State hadn't beaten Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game, then USC wouldn't be No. 1. The Wildcats gave Carroll his first Trojan loss, in the second game of the 2001 season, and two of the nine losses he has suffered in three years. But nobody loves the Wildcats more than the Trojans.

The USC players will figure out soon enough that as long as they beat Michigan, they've got a pretty good chance of winning the AP national title. Before Carroll dismissed the players Sunday, he said, "Make sure you pass the word. We're the No. 1 team in America right now, boys."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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