This is where Southern California wanted to be last year, and where Oklahoma probably hopes to end up every year.
For the Trojans, that means the BCS title game. It means the Orange Bowl for the Sooners.
At least a share of the national championship will be at stake, and probably the outright title, when top-ranked USC meets No. 2 Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl on Tuesday in a matchup featuring four of this season’s five Heisman Trophy finalists.
The Trojans were also ranked No. 1 in both major polls last season, but ended up third in the final BCS standings, denying them a shot at Oklahoma or LSU in the title game.
Instead, they settled for beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl and winning the AP title while LSU topped the Sooners in the Sugar Bowl for the BCS crown.
Now, the winner between these 12-0 teams will likely be the consensus national champ, with third-ranked Auburn being the team that gets left out despite finishing 13-0 after beating No. 9 Virginia Tech 16-13 on Monday night in the Sugar Bowl.
“It was tough going into it last year, trying to put the smiley face on for the Rose Bowl even though we wanted to be playing for the big one,” said USC defensive lineman Shaun Cody. “This year, if we’re able to win this game, we know we’ll be national champions. That’s definitely a difference.”
Playing the BCS title game in Miami could make a big difference for Oklahoma.
A win in the Orange Bowl is how the Sooners have capped four of their seven national championships, including the most recent in 2000 when they beat Florida State. Of 37 bowl games in school history, Oklahoma has been to the Orange on 17 occasions and won 12, more than any other program.
“It is special. It adds a little more probably because our state and our fans have such a history here and familiarity with coming down here,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. “Hopefully we can make it another great experience.”
They’ll likely do just that if Jason White and Adrian Peterson outperform Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.
The matchup of White against Leinart puts two Heisman Trophy winners in the same game for the first time in college football history. A few weeks after the pair was hugging at the Heisman ceremony, where Leinart took home the honor and White finished third after winning it last year, each quarterback has to hope the other fails miserably.
“Last year at this time, there were interviews everyday with different people about the Heisman and that’s not the case this year. There’s definitely less attention for me which is good,” said White, who has thrown for 2,961 yards with 33 touchdowns and six interceptions this season.
“I have a pretty good sense of what he’s going through, but Matt’s a smart kid and a great athlete. He’ll keep the distractions away and he’ll be ready to play.”
White’s efficiency rating was slightly higher, but Leinart came away with the Heisman and AP Player of the Year honors after piling up 2,990 yards passing, 28 TDs and six interceptions.
Both players benefitted from an outstanding underclassman in the backfield. Leinart was complemented by a sophomore who affected the game in many ways and White relied on a freshman who opened up the passing game because of his effectiveness carrying the ball.
The Sooners saw Peterson nearly become the first freshman in history to win the Heisman—he was runner-up to Leinart—as he finished third nationally with 1,843 rushing yards. Peterson ran for 15 scores and averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
Bush, who was fifth in the Heisman voting, is a triple threat who had 15 total touchdowns and has come up with numerous dazzling plays for the Trojans. The 6-foot, 200-pounder ranks fifth in the country in all-purpose yards, averaging 181.8 per game, despite teams often tracking his every move and kicking the ball away from him.
At least one Sooner is more worried about Bush than Leinart.
The only real bulletin board material to come out since this matchup was announced came from Oklahoma defensive end Larry Birdine, who called USC’s offense ‘average’ and questioned Leinart’s ability.
“Besides Reggie Bush—he’s a great athlete, he’s a fast back, he makes plays or whatever—but nobody else stands out to me,” Birdine said. “Matt Leinart, he’s the Heisman Trophy winner, but he hasn’t been driving them—or he hasn’t been winning games. Up ‘til the last four or five games, Reggie Bush has been their difference-maker.
“We feel like if we take Reggie out of the game, we’re gonna win.”
Bush, however, isn’t even USC’s top threat out of the backfield. LenDale White rushed for team highs of 985 yards and 13 TDs.
Both teams are also terrific on defense.
Not only were USC and Oklahoma among the country’s top 15 in points scored and total offense, they both allowed fewer than 14 points per game and gave up less than 285 yards per contest to rank among the top 10 nationally.
“The obvious perspective you see in this game is that this is such a great matchup of two teams that have had really successful seasons and have like strengths,” said coach Pete Carroll, whose Trojans carry a 21-game winning streak into this showdown. “We both play defense well, and both have big-time Heisman quarterbacks and flashy running backs and very exciting teams.”
These teams, who had no common opponents this season, have never faced each other in a bowl and are meeting for the first time since 1992. USC has won four straight, and is 4-0-1 against Oklahoma since a loss in 1971.
The Sooners trail the all-time series 2-5-1, though they’re 1-1-1 against top-ranked Trojan squads. USC has won twice against second-ranked Oklahoma teams.
USC, only two bowl victories behind all-time leader Alabama (29), made its only other trip to the Orange Bowl in 2003, routing Iowa 38-17.