November 08, 2023

Split Decision: 2003 National Champions - LSU Tigers x USC Trojans

This January will mark the 20th anniversary of the last split national championship in the history of college football.

Split championships were common in the era of dueling polling services. The Associated Press poll began in 1936, with American sportswriters voting on who they felt were the best teams. The college team which received the most first-place votes was considered the national champion, however, many fans and followers believed that local writers were biased towards their own teams.

This led to the formation of the UPI, or Coaches poll, which began in 1950. The UPI was voted on by college coaches, who some believed knew more about the sport than writers. For the first five years, the two organizations named the same team champion, what is known as a consensus champion. But in 1954 the AP declared Ohio State national champions while the Coaches voted for UCLA. This cycle was repeated multiple times over the next 47 years. In ten of those years, there was a split national championship. The final split came in the last season before the advent of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). In 1997, Nebraska won the Coaches poll and Michigan the AP.

The BCS was a system designed to pit the top two teams in the title game and ensure a consensus champion. The BCS depended on a mathematical formula which factored in the AP and Coaches’ poll, but also gave weight to myriad computer polls such as the Sagarin Ratings. Additionally, the BCS factored in strength of schedule, number of losses, and quality wins. It was believed that by lessening the impact of human biases, two worthy teams would meet for the championship. However, the BCS system did not go without its own controversies.

In 2000, 10-1 Florida State was chosen over 10-1 Miami despite the fact the Hurricanes dealt the Seminoles their one loss. In 2001, the BCS chose a Nebraska team which lost its season finale, and a chance to win the Big 12, to Colorado by the score of 62-26. The Cornhuskers were chosen over PAC-10 champion Oregon. The formulas were mocked but the BCS caught a break because undefeated Oklahoma (2000) and undefeated Miami (2001) won the title games, leaving little room for anything other than a consensus champion.

In 2003, however, the BCS magnafluxed and created the very result it was designed to avoid: a split national champion. Oklahoma began the season in the top spot and held it throughout the regular season. USC and LSU also boasted strong teams but they each had hiccups during the regular season. USC lost to Stanford in triple overtime on September 27 and LSU lost by double-digits to an unranked Florida team at home in October. Both the Trojans and Tigers ran the table the rest of the season and the big question was which of them would play top-ranked Oklahoma.

Then something shocking happened.

The Sooner Schooner was tipped over when Kansas State routed Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game, 35-7. Given how thoroughly Oklahoma lost, USC jumped to the top spot in the AP and Coaches’ Poll, LSU went to #2 in both polls and the Sooners fell to #3. It appeared a certainty that USC and LSU would play each other for the national championship.

But then Hawaii had to go and lose to Boise State. 

The Trojans had beaten Hawaii earlier in the season, but when the Warriors lost 45-28 to the Broncos, it lowered the strength of schedule of USC just enough to allow both LSU and Oklahoma to surpass it in the BCS. That meant the national championship game would pit the #2 and #3 teams in the AP and Coaches Poll while the top-ranked team in both was left out. No one took that news well, especially in Los Angeles.

“It’s not right, it’s just not right,” said USC wideout Mike Williams.

“Obviously, there’s some kind of problem, because the number one team in the country is not playing in that game,” head coach Pete Carroll stated.

Despite the national controversy, the games went on. USC beat Michigan 28-14 in the Rose Bowl, and LSU beat Oklahoma 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl. LSU was declared national champions by the BCS, but the AP voters chose to not adhere to the BCS computers and declared USC its national champions. Split champions. What an interesting dynamic.

The split titles alarmed many in college football and the BCS repeatedly tweaked the formula over the next few years to ensure the top-ranked team in the nation would not be excluded from the title game. While controversy over the teams selected raged, including the next year when five undefeated teams (Auburn, Boise State, Oklahoma, USC, and Utah) threw a spanner in the works, every champion from 2004 to 2013 was consensus. Eventually the BCS was replaced by the College Football Playoff (CFP), putting to rest the idea that the top team would never play for a title.

Polls are subjective and playoff spots are limited. Even with the increased number of playoff teams coming, some teams may feel slighted. However, it appears the day of split national championships are finally behind us.



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