Controversial BCS National Championships: A Look At What Might Have Been in A Four-Team Playoff – 2003

Pat Pannu Editorials

Sure, it may be less than two weeks until the 2012 season, but with the installation of a new four-team playoff structure this off-season (set to begin in 2014), it is as good of a time as any to ponder what teams should have made the playoffs in the 15 years of the BCS’ existence.

Nearly every year one or more teams are left complaining about the final polls not falling in their favor. Now there are only two more seasons to endure the BCS structure before college playoffs begin, two more years of a team or two getting robbed from their shot at a title.

This series leading up to the kickoff of the 2012 season will feature a mock playoff from specific years when the BCS system seemed to get it all very wrong. Based upon the team’s record and players, we will simulate who would have played whom and come out victorious had the playoffs existed from the get-go, starting with the 2000 season. This will focus only on controversial BCS national championship games, explaining what could have happened had there been a playoff.

For part 1’s look at the 2000 season’s proposed playoff, click here.
For part 2’s look at the 2001 season’s proposed playoff, click here.

The 2003-04 Season

2003 BCS Recap – The Controversy

The controversy in the 2003-2004 football season stemmed from the fact that three teams–Oklahoma, USC and LSU–finished the season with only one loss. It was the first time in the BCS’ existence that no team had finished undefeated, further adding to the speculation of which teams deserved to play for the championship.

Oklahoma, which had been undefeated before losing to Kansas State in the Big-12 Championship game, retained their #1 rank after the loss based on their whole season’s performance, the BCS computers not taking the timing of the loss into account. However the decision drew ire from both fans and media that once again saw a team from the Big-12 incapable of winning its own conference once again competing for the championship, just like in 2001.

USC felt snubbed, being passed over for the championship game despite winning the Pac-10 title in favor of Oklahoma, who finished 3rd in the Big-12, to face LSU. The game was essentially a home game for the LSU Tigers, held at the Louisiana Superdome, with the Tigers using the homefield advantage to eek out a 21-14 victory over Oklahoma to receive the 2003-04 BCS National Championship.


#1 Seed: The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners

The preseason hype for the Sooners defense seemed well  deserved after their season opening 37- 3 victory over the North Texas Mean Green. Admittedly, the Mean Green were not the toughest opponent the Oklahoma defense would face, but the performance was nonetheless impressive. At one point in the 2nd quarter, North Texas had more penalty yards than offensive yards.

Oklahoma then traveled to Tuscaloosa to face the Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama played its best game of the season, but it just was not enough to hang with the # 3 team in the country, the Sooners needing a fake punt and an impressive performance from QB Jason White to pull out the 20-13 victory over the unranked-but-defiant Crimson Tide. 

The Sooners returned home to the friendly confines of Gaylord Stadium. In front of a school-record crowd of 83,091 hosting the Fresno State Bulldogs, White threw for 338 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. The Oklahoma offense was simply outstanding, scoring on all six of its first half possessions to take a 38-0 halftime lead, before rolling to a 52-28 victory.

With the UCLA Bruins in town, Oklahoma reminded them that there are three key phases to football – offense, defense AND special teams. The Bruins were simply terrible on kick coverage, letting Antonio Perkins set the NCAA record for most return yards in a single game, scoring three times with returns of 65, 74 and 84 yards to light up the scoreboard in the 59-24 rout.

Oklahoma sprinted past Iowa State 53-7 on its way to a showdown against #5 Texas, the bitter Red River Rivalry rarely having larger implications. Oklahoma dropped its highest point total of the season, the defense forcing six turnovers and led by Mark Clayton, who had a school record 190 yards receiving, to help Oklahoma take down the Longhorns 65-13. Oklahoma ended the month of October with a 34-13 win over Missouri and a 34-20 defeat of Colorado.

The Sooners started the month of December against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M–the only blemishes on Oklahoma’s record the previous year. Oklahoma destroyed their in-state rivals (Oklahoma State) 52-9 before welcoming the Aggies, resulting in one of the biggest blowouts in recent history, a 77-0 thrashing of A&M.

The next two games for Oklahoma were more of the same, defeating Baylor and Texas Tech by 41-3 and 56-25 respectively. The only game left on the Sooners schedule was the Big-12 conference championship game against #10 Kansas State. Led by the diminutive but electric Darren Sproles, K-State gave the Sooners a taste of their own medicine, squashing Oklahoma’s dreams of a perfect season before a stunned home crowd as Ell Roberson threw four touchdown passes. The real star of the game was Sproles though, running for 235 yards and catching three passes for 88 yards, reminding everyone on this night the Sooners were not the #1 team in either the Big-12 or the country.


#2 Seed: The 2003 LSU Tigers

LSU quarterback Matt Mauck took a little while to shake off the rust, but once he did he was simply spectacular. LSU, hosting Louisiana-Monroe to open the season, was held scoreless until 6:37 left in the first half  but then it was all Matt Mauck, scoring three touchdowns before halftime to put LSU firmly in control before letting the backups carry LSU to an easy 49-7 victory.

In one of the very rare occasions a SEC team ventures outside of the South, LSU traveled to Arizona State, routing the Sun Devils 59-13, Mauck throwing only one incompletion all night. This was followed up with a career-high 305 yard effort by Mauk to beat Western Illinois 35-7.

LSU QB Matt Mauck

Next, 10th ranked LSU faced its first ranked team of the season-#7 Georgia. LSU was in control late in the 4th ahead 10-3 and looking to score again when Mauck fumbled, setting up Georgia’s Tyson Browning to break open for 93 yard game-tying score on a screen pass.

With few seconds remaining, Mauck found Skyler Green for the game-winning touchdown, the first road loss in Mark Richt’s tenure at Georgia. There was no letdown after the high of defeating the Bulldogs, as LSU took down the other Bulldogs in the conference, Mississippi State, in an easy 41-6 win, shutting out MSU until the 4th quarter.

LSU next hosted Florida, the Tigers defense doing all it could to keep them in the game, but Mauck’s two interceptions and a gutsy performance by Florida QB Chris Leak, who overcame six sacks to pass for 229 yards and two touchdowns, handed LSU its first loss of the season, 19-7. Following a bye, LSU’s #1-ranked offense in the SEC looked completely out of synch against the Gators, its only score coming from a Skyler Green 80-yard punt return.

Licking its wounds, LSU sought respite in Columbia facing the South Carolina Gamecocks. It turned out to be just what the Tigers needed, rushing for 263 yards to run away with it, 33-7. LSU went on to win its next three games against Auburn,  Louisiana Tech and Alabama routing each, before facing Eli Manning and #15 Ole Miss. The Tigers used their stellar defense to blanket Manning’s receivers, holding him to 16/32 and 200 yards and an interception.

LSU ran past Arkansas 55-24 on its way to a rematch in the SEC title game against fifth-ranked Georgia. LSU made sure that everyone knew that its first victory was no fluke, soundly defeating Georgia 34-13. LSU, led by freshman sensation Justin Vincent who ran for 201 yards on just 18 carries and two touchdowns, made sure that LSU would keep its hat in the ring for the National Championship game.

 #3 Seed: The 2003 USC Trojans

USC QB Matt Leinart came into the season with big expectations and did not disappoint.

The much hyped season-opening battle between #8 USC and #6 Auburn proved a dud, as the Trojans embarrassed the Tigers on their own turf, 23-0; quarterback Matt Leinart (replacing Heisman Trophy-winner Carson Palmer) throwing for 192 yards and a TD. The real story of the game was the USC defense, which shut down what may have been the best backfield in the nation with tailbacks Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and quarterback Jason Campbell, who accounted for two of the three Tiger turnovers.

The Trojans hosted BYU in the second game of the season building a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, but then were shut out until 7:05 in the fourth quarter before scoring two touchdowns to close out a 35-18 victory It was smooth sailing the next week vs. Hawaii, sending the Warriors packing back for the islands, 61-32.

However, the Trojans high hopes for running the table came to a halt with the opening of the Pac-12 season, the Aaron Rodgers-led Cal Bears shocking USC in triple overtime, the signature win in Jeff Tedford’s long tenure as Cal head coach. The only bright spot for the Trojans was the special teams unit, which blocked two kicks in the game to keep the Trojans within striking distance, but it was not enough.

Despite a leg injury, Leinart and co. gutted out a rebound win against ASU, throwing for 283 yards, freshman running back Lendale White chipping in with 140 yards on the ground. The game remained close into the 4th quarter before USC closed it out with two late scores, finishing the game 37-17.

Riding their hot streak after the Cal letdown, the Trojans ran past Stanford 44-21, Notre Dame 45-14 and Washington 43-9, setting up the table for a showdown with #6 Washington State. USC came into the game looking to show that it was the best team on the west coast. and did just that, dominating the 2nd half scoring 28 points, for a 43-16 beatdown of the Cougars.

The following week against Arizona the USC defense shut out Arizona, cruising 45-0, heading into the annual cross-town rivalry vs. UCLA. It proved to be no contest, as USC crushed the hapless Bruins 52-28. Despite the dominant year with wins over highly ranked teams included a shellacking of Auburn in SEC country, the Cal loss was too much to overcome, USC was denied a shot at the national championship in favor of LSU and Oklahoma.


 #4 Seed: The 2003 Michigan Wolverines

Michigan got off to a hot start thanks to the legs of Chris Perry, who rushed for a career- high 232 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan kicked off the season with a 45-7 victory over Central Michigan. Michigan rolled through its next two games against Houston and Notre Dame, winning 50-3 and 38-0, setting up a matchup against #22 Oregon at Autzen Stadium.

Michigan RB Chris Perry couldn’t stand to watch as his Heisman dreams and Michigan’s National Championship aspirations were sunk one day at Autzen Stadium

Giving up only 10 points in their first three games, there was already talk of the Wolverines being legitimate national championship contenders, ascending to #3 in the polls, and Perry as a leading Heisman candidate while leading the nation in rushing at the time. Perry however would be frustrated, the Ducks playing keep-away for much of the game and holding Perry to just 26 yards on the ground in his few opportunities to get the ball, Michigan’s net rushing total a miniscule 3 yards net (compared to their 307 yards-per-game average).

Quarterback Jason Fife ran for one touchdown, which earned him a spot on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, and the Ducks blocked a punt late recovered for a score to hold on late for a 31-27 win, as the record 59,023 fans rushed the field in one of the most raucous settings in Autzen Stadium’s lauded history.

Michigan bounced back against Indiana, winning 31-17, before traveling to #19 Iowa, a game that the Wolverines appeared to have squared away, but squandered late for a heartbreaking 30-27 loss. Despite the now two losses, Michigan wasn’t ready to throw in the towel on their championship season just yet. Mounting the largest comeback in school history, they overcame a massive 4th quarter deficit, scoring 31 points to eek out a 38-35 victory over the #13 Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Michigan was on a mission now, quickly dispersing Illinois 56-14, #10-ranked Purdue 31-3, Michigan State 27-20, and Northwestern 41-10; setting up the big game, the annual Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.

Ohio State, the defending national champions, again fielded an impressive team posing a formidable threat to the rival Wolverines, but quarterback John Navarre had the game of his life, tossing for 278 yards and two TDs to take down the Buckeyes, 35-21. The victory ended Michigan’s two game skid against hated OSU, giving the Wolverines their first outright Big-10 championship since 1997.


The Hypothetical Playoff –
Semifinal Game 1:

*Simulated using

#1 Oklahoma vs. #4 Michigan


Michigan, the only two-loss team in the playoff, got off to a good start mounting a long drive on its first drive but settling for a Garrett Rivas 42 yard, an ominous sign for things to come for the Wolverines. Following an Oklahoma punt, Michigan tacked on another field goal, this time from 27 yards out. Oklahoma mounted a strong response drive but Jason White threw an interception to Markus Curry in the endzone, ending the threat.

With Michigan on the 20, Oklahoma’s defense decided to get on the board, Antonio Perkins intercepting a John Navarre pass and returning it 18 yards for the Sooners’ first score. Following a Michigan punt, White hit Mark Clayton for a 62-yard touchdown pass with 13:57 left in the 2nd quarter. After a couple of dud possessions by both teams, Oklahoma hit a 33-yard field goal before halftime to go in with a 17-6 lead.

On the first series of the second half ,Oklahoma failed to convert on 4th and inches, but Michigan’s counter could once again only muster a field goal. On its next series, the snap went over Jason White’s head, but Oklahoma was able to hang on to the ball at the 1-yard line. It didn’t matter, as Kejuan Jones was tackled in the endzone on the following snap for a safety.

On Oklahoma’s next possession a promising drive was killed by a Jason White turnover , resulting in yet another Michigan field goal. The Sooners’ offense finally stopped shooting itself in the foot, tacking on a 31-yard touchdown run by Renaldo Works and an extra field goal late for a 27-14 victory in round 1 of the hypothetical 2003 playoffs.

Had the four-team playoff existed in the 2003 season, the Oklahoma Sooners would have advanced to the National Championship game.

The boxscore, courtesy of game simulation software

The Hypothetical Playoff –
Semifinal Game 2:

*Simulated using

#2 LSU vs. #3 USC


USC came into the game with a chip on its shoulder after believing that it instead of Oklahoma should have been ranked #1, and looked to take out its frustration on LSU. USC started the game off with a Ryan Killeen 34-yard field goal, but LSU quickly countered with an 8-yard touchdown run by freshman Justin Vincent.

After two dud possessions by both teams, USC scored its first touchdown of the game by way of a 4-yard scamper from Lendale White. LSU again answered with a sensational run by Joseph Addai, rumbling 28 yards for another score. USC with the ball in its hands was trying to score again, but  back-to-back holding calls killed the drive, settling for a 34-yard field goal with 11 seconds left in the first half.

The third quarter was all about the USC defense, which intercepted Matt Mauck twice, resulting in a field goal and 8-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams. The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth defensive affair, but after Jason White threw his third interception of the game, Leinart marched the Trojans down the field finishing off the drive with another TD pass to Williams.

After a promising LSU drive was shut down in the red zone, Lendale White took a routine hand-off and did not stop running for 52 yards for the final nail in LSU’s coffin. LSU scored a touchdown as time expired but it would not be enough, USC defeating the Bayou Bengals 36-20 in the other semi-final game of the 2003 hypothetical playoff series.

Had there been a four-team playoff structure in 2003, the championship game would have been the USC Trojans vs. the Oklahoma Sooners.

Boxscore of the semifinal match as determined by’s game simulation software



The Hypothetical Playoff –
Championship Game

*Simulated using

#1 Oklahoma vs. #3 USC


Oklahoma believed that they were the best team in the nation, but it would be USC who proved it on the playing field in the 2003 hypothetical national championship. Oklahoma started the game with the ball, but a fumble set up USC for a 35-yard field goal. USC’s defense forced a punt, but just like the game against Michigan, Oklahoma’s defense kept buckling down in the red zone, forcing a 25-yard field goal.

Down 6-0 just 9:51 into the game, Oklahoma went to work, scoring  a 35-yard field goal. After a quick punt from USC, the Sooners marched down the field again, capping it with a 27-yard run from Renaldo Works to take the lead. USC mounted a drive of its own and finally were into the red zone when Matt Leinart rolled left and hit Mike Williams for a 5-yard touchdown pass.

After a couple of blown opportunities by both teams, USC scored a touchdown with 1:05 left in the first half, Leinart again hitting Mike Williams, this time for a 22-yard touchdown pass–their 4th postseason touchdown. USC started the second half with the ball and were threatening to score, but Derrick Strait intercepted Leinart and Oklahoma marched down the field, finishing it with a 1-yard touchdown run by Kejuan Jones on fourth and one for the only score of the 3rd quarter. USC finally pulled away in the 4th quarter after two long runs; one by Lendale White, and another by Hershel Dennis.

Oklahoma managed one last score and were threatening again until Will Poole jumped a route and ran it back to the Oklahoma 20, setting up Lendale White for his 2nd  touchdown of the game.

Final score – USC 43 Oklahoma 24.

Had there been a four-team playoff system in 2003 as is being implemented in 2014, your national champions would have been the USC Trojans.

The boxscore of the 2003 national championship as determined by’s game simulation software

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