College Football Playoff Rewind: 2003 Final Four From image

What-if Rewind: 2003 College Football Playoff

Playoff settles winner during year in which Coaches' Poll and AP Poll selected different champions

By Joel Beall -
July 24, 2012

The Bowl Championship Series was established for the 1998 NCAA Division I-A football season to ordain an irrefutable ruler of the college gridiron, as sole entitlement to the sport's crown had occasionally escaped the grasp of the game's third-party entities entrusted to endow such an honor. Just the year before the system's implementation, this dilemma reared its ugly head, as the Coaches' Poll awarded the Nebraska Cornhuskers as national victors while the AP Rankings bestowed this mantle to the Michigan Wolverines.

Unfortunately, the BCS procedure was not as fluid as planned, as irregularities that were supposed to be eliminated by the new process endured. In the 2000 campaign, many pigskin pundits felt the University of Washington and the University of Miami presented better championship cases than the system's choice of Florida State, as the Seminoles had suffered a defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes (whose lone loss came against, you got it, the Huskies). The following year's title bout was met with similar scorn, as one-loss Nebraska, who failed to earn an invite to its own conference championship, was selected over one-loss Oregon and two-loss Colorado.

Yet BCS skepticism reached a fever pitch in 2003 when the Oklahoma Sooners, fresh off a 7-35 thrashing by No.15 Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game, were chosen over the Southern California Trojans, as USC's only blemish was a 31-34 triple-overtime loss against rival Cal. The fact the Trojans' KO came on the road while Bob Stoops' Sooners fell in a neutral site only fanned the flames. Oklahoma was bested by No. 2 Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl 21-14; alas, as the Trojans took care of business against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, the AP voters, perhaps out of spite, designated USC as their top dog. Split prizewinners, the very concept the BCS system aimed to erase, had come to fruition.

However, with the college football ranks finally adopting a four-team playoff for the 2014 season, we thought it would be prudent to revisit this source of contention and, using the award-winning simulation engine, deduce which contending team would come out on top in this revamped postseason format. Do Matt Leinart, Mike Williams, LenDale White and company make the most of their second chance? On to the simulations...

2003 college football playoff

Playoff seeding based on BCS rankings.

2003 College Football Semifinal
MatchupWin%Avg ScoreWIS Interactive
(1) Oklahoma69.931.7Simulate Game
(4) Michigan30.123.7

2003 Oklahoma
Record: 12-2 (BCS Championship loss)
Team MVP: Jason White
(3,846 pass yards / 40 TDs)

2003 Michigan
Record: 10-3 (Rose Bowl loss)
Team MVP: Chris Perry
(1,674 yards / 18 TDs)

2003 College Football Semifinal
MatchupWin%Avg ScoreWIS Interactive
(2) LSU29.822.1Simulate Game
(3) USC70.229.7

2003 LSU
Record: 13-1 (BCS National Champions)
Team MVP: Matt Mauck
(2,825 pass yards / 28 TDs)

2003 USC
Record: 12-1 (AP National Champions)
Team MVP: Matt Leinart
(3,556 pass yards / 38 TDs)

2003 College Football Title Game
MatchupWin%Avg ScoreWIS Interactive
(1) Oklahoma48.527.9Simulate Game
(3) USC51.528.5Sample Boxscore

Simulated Title Game: Recap

When one evokes USC's decade of dominance in the aughts, images of Reggie Bush running zig-zags through opposing defenses, Coach Carroll's childlike zeal on the sidelines and Lofa Tatupu laying wayward receivers out across the middle are usually brought to mind. Missing from these mental portraits is Hershel Dennis, USC's starting tailback from the 2003 season. Injuries and off-the-field issues demoted Dennis to back-up duty after '03, but in the What-If world, the diminutive back still holds relevance, and made his presence known in our theoretical championship tilt.

Out to prove their mettle, the Trojans were the first to draw blood. After holding the Sooners to a four-play possession, USC took advantage of decent field position, as two Leinart strikes and a facemask penalty set up a five-yard scamper for paydirt from Dennis. However, Southern Cal went silent for the rest of the first half, and Oklahoma took advantage, with a field goal from Trey DiCarlo and a 24-yard scoring bomb from Heisman winner Jason White to Mark Clayton, giving OU the lead heading into halftime.

The third quarter resembled the tone of the first 30 minutes, with both offensive assaults struggling to amount much of an attack. Leinart was able to find sophomore sensation Williams in the end zone to give the Trojans a 14-10 advantage early in the third quarter. The Sooners would match with two more DiCarlo three-pointers, and upped their lead with Clayton's second scoring grab of the day with 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Sitting on a 23-14 cushion, it looked like USC's cries of injustice were about to ring hollow.

Final Four BCS Rankings: 1998-2011
Oklahoma 5
Ohio State 5
Alabama 4
Texas 4
Florida State 3
Miami 3

Yet the Trojans did not go quietly into the night, as Leinart connected with Williams again, this time from 27 yards out, to cut the deficit to three. The Sooners tried to run the clock out, but were forced to send DiCarlo out for a 46-yard boot. The kicker was successful on the conversion, but USC now had the ball with more than enough time (3:05) on the scoreboard.

After a series of short runs and dink-and-dunks, Dennis took a pitch 18 yards, bringing the Trojans into enemy territory. However, the OU defense stood its' ground, forcing Leinart and company into a fourth-and-seven with 46 seconds remaining. Scrambling out of the pocket, the USC signal caller hit his favorite target, Williams, for a 20-yard bullet, giving the Trojans new life with 30 seconds to go. From there, Dennis brought his team into the Promised Land, first with a 14-yard run, followed by a five-yard out pass from Leinart, giving USC a 27-26 lead with just seconds to spare. Although they failed on the two-point attempt, Oklahoma was unable to do anything with the ensuing kickoff, delivering the Trojans their redemption at glory.

Leinart paced the USC attack with 247 yards and three touchdowns, while Dennis finished with 74 total yards and two trips to the end zone. In the losing effort, White racked up 320 yards, although threw three passes to the wrong team.

USC had to vacate a few of their titles during this era of excellence, but in our simulation forum, the school gets to raise another banner.

Gridiron Dynasty

Joel Beall is the Assistant Content Manager for He can be reached at

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