December 6, 2003, the Beginning of the End for the BCS

PaulCorrespondent IApril 8, 2017

The first five years of the BCS, 1998—2002, went rather smoothly considering what was at stake.  Teams that had a reasonable argument for belonging in the national title game usually lost their bowl games; thus cutting off further discussion.  

Then came 2003 and the BCS has not been the same since.  There was the unbeatable team of the century, for that year at least, Oklahoma, everyone's media darling, Southern California, and the rags to riches contender, LSU. 

On the morning of December 6, 2003, each of the three contenders had a game to play.  USC (10-1) was to play their final regular season game at home against a good 7-4 Oregon State team.  OU(12-0) was set to play a dangerous 10-3 Kansas State team in the Big XII Championship game, and LSU (10-1) had a rematch against a very good 10-2 Georgia team in Atlanta.

The championship game "everyone" anticipated was between the the high powered offenses of Southern California (48.5 ppg) and Oklahoma (49.6 ppg).  Both teams were loaded with star power.

Oklahoma had the Heisman Trophy winner and the winner of virtually every post season award.  Southern California had two future Heisman Trophy winners.  LSU was almost an afterthought.  The consensus was, after struggling to beat Georgia 17-10 at home, that the Tigers were unlikely to beat the Dawgs in their own backyard.

Unfortunately, the college football gods were not smiling on the BCS that day.  USC started the day by disposing of Oregon State with surprising ease 52-28.  Pundits had remarked repeatedly that Oklahoma could lose the Big XII championship game (wink, wink) and still play in the BCS championship game. 

Then the best laid plans started to unravel. Oklahoma was crushed by Kansas State 35-7 and LSU routed Georgia 35-13.  Due to the strength of schedule factor in the BCS formula, LSU nudged past USC for the second spot in the BCS championship game.

With Oklahoma's loss, each of the three teams had one loss.  USC lost on the road 31-34 to a decent California team(7-6).  LSU lost at home 7-19 to a fairly good Florida team(8-5).   

A hew and a cry went up, decrying the injustice of a system that would deny the media darling a place in the championship game.  The sports writers were so incensed that they had the AP withdraw from the BCS and declared USC the national champion after beating two loss Michigan in the Rose Bowl.  To date, 2003 is the only split national championship in the BCS era. 

Four things came out of the aftermath of 2003.  All were directly or indirectly the result of USC being denied participation in the championship game.

1. The strength of schedule was removed as a separate factor in the BCS formula.  As a result, more and more teams schedule rent-a-wins in order to pad their W-L record without fear of a strength of schedule component.

2. The human component of the BCS formula was increased and the computer component was reduced.

3. Although not officially part of the BCS formula, it is highly unlikely a team will be selected for a future BCS championship game if it does not win its conference title.

4. The push for a playoff in Division I began in earnest.


The merits of how the teams were selected for the 2003 BCS championship have been debated over the years.  Valid arguments can be made for whichever side you happen to support.  Most will agree that if a playoff or at least a plus-one is adopted, 2003 will be have been worth all of the controversy