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Bowled Over By Controversy

Split championships, disputed titles and chaotic finishes.

The Bowl Championship Series was supposed to eliminate all of that from college football. Instead, it's been raised to a new level.

Southern California finished the regular season as the No. 1 team according to the human poll voters but couldn't impress the BCS computers enough to make it to the Sugar Bowl.

So get ready for a pair of national championship games played three days and about 1,600 miles apart.

USC, third in the final BCS standings, will try to win The Associated Press title with a win on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl against Michigan. Oklahoma and LSU, the top two teams in the BCS, will play in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4 with the coaches' poll championship at stake.

Anyone for a playoff?

"I don't think anyone will know who the legitimate national champion is unless all three teams in consideration get the opportunity to play one another," LSU coach Nick Saban said.

Oklahoma made the BCS title game despite getting walloped by Kansas State 35-7 in the Big 12 championship Saturday night, becoming the second team in three years to play for the national championship without winning its own conference.

Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, the coordinator of the BCS, said requiring a team to win its conference is just one possible change to the system next year.

"They're going to have to do something about the BCS," USC cornerback Will Poole said. "Maybe they need to pull the plug."

When the BCS began in 1998, the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll agreed to give its trophy to the winner of the BCS title game, while the AP poll is free to vote anybody No. 1.

That creates a scenario where USC could beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl and lose its top spot in the coaches' poll. The No. 1 team in the AP poll has never dropped after winning its bowl game.

When the BCS contract expires after the 2005 season, a one-game championship might be instituted after the bowls. That would be too late to fix this year's mess.

"The No. 1 team is not playing in the game that they're billing as the championship game," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "Something didn't come out right."

In the final BCS standings, Oklahoma (12-1) was first with 5.11 points based on its top spot in five of the seven computers, the 11th-toughest schedule and a quality win over Texas. The Sooners were third in both polls.

"At the end of the year, we're No. 1 in the system," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "There's nothing to apologize for."

SEC champion LSU (12-1) was second with 5.99, edging out USC (11-1) by 0.16 in the second-closest finish in the six-year history of the BCS. Nebraska beat Colorado by 0.05 in 2001.

The Trojans got 79 of the 128 first-place votes in the polls but finished third in five computers because of a weak Pac-10 schedule.

LSU was second in the polls and six computers and edged out USC based on a tougher schedule. LSU and USC were each picked first in one computer.

The Tigers' spot in the title game wasn't assured until Boise State beat Hawaii at 3 a.m. EST Sunday. USC beat Hawaii in September and needed the Warriors to win to boost its strength of schedule.

"I'm glad we're bringing the No. 1 and 2 teams in the BCS together. But I have empathy for USC. It's hard to sit here and do cartwheels," Tranghese said.

This is the third time in four seasons that a team in the top two in the polls didn't make it to the BCS title game. The Pac-10 has been the victim twice and remains the only BCS conference not to put a team in the title game in the six years of the system.

Commissioner Tom Hansen called it "unfortunate" and said the conference would look into making changes to the system.

For once, the Rose Bowl is happy about the BCS, getting a traditional pairing of Big Ten and Pac-10 champions for the first time in three seasons.

"I think we're going to have the national championship game right where we are," Tournament of Roses president Mike Rife said. "We're going to thoroughly enjoy having the Pac-10 and Big Ten back with us again."

There hasn't been a split championship since 1997, when Michigan won the AP poll and Nebraska took the coaches' trophy. The only way to avoid a disputed finish this year is if Michigan (10-2) beats USC.

"You would like the No. 1 and No. 2 team to be playing each other, but USC still has a chance to win a share of the national championship," LSU quarterback Matt Mauck said. "I think it is kind of messed up, but there's still a chance for everyone who thinks they are deserving to have a part of it."

The other BCS matchups have No. 10 Miami (10-2) playing No. 9 Florida State (10-2) in the Orange Bowl and No. 8 Kansas State (11-3) facing No. 7 Ohio State (10-2) in the Fiesta Bowl.

Both the Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl wanted Ohio State, but the Fiesta won out because of a rotation that gave them first pick. The Orange Bowl settled for a regular season rematch.

by Josh Dubow

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