- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

Don’t be surprised if last season’s college football script has flipped by the time the lights go down on the Orange Bowl four months from now.

A year ago, Oklahoma was a seemingly untouchable No.1, cruising through a 12-0 regular season by emasculating foes by an average score of 48-13. But the Sooners’ run at perfection unraveled when Kansas State shocked them 35-7 at the Big 12 Championship. And when they closed the season with a 21-14 loss to LSU in a sloppy Sugar Bowl, once-beaten Southern California and LSU shared the college game’s mythical title.

This time the primary protagonists are the same. No.1 USC, a 24-13 victor in Saturday’s opener against Virginia Tech, is unlikely to yield its perch atop the rankings given its superiority in the weakened Pac-10. But if No.2 Oklahoma makes it to Miami for a Jan.4 showdown with the Trojans, expect USC’s repeat bid and dynastic dreams to fall prey to a modern Trojan Horse known as the Sooner Schooner.

“USC is No. 1 until someone proves otherwise,” Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said recently. “But that’s far from saying they’re the best team. Top to bottom, I’d still go with Oklahoma. After that, I think you’re talking about a pretty sizable gap before you get to No.3. It never really works out this way, and that’s the beauty of college football, but on paper it looks like a two-team deal.”

Pay no attention to the caterwauling of SEC fans, who are likely to point to defending co-champion LSU and much-ballyhooed Georgia. No.4 LSU made a surprise trip to the top last season, but the Tigers are unlikely to repeat after losing quarterback Matt Mauck and top receivers Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson and drawing a savage SEC road schedule that includes trips to Auburn, Georgia, Florida and Arkansas.

As for No. 3 Georgia, despite the renaissance of the program under fourth-year coach Mark Richt, the Bulldogs must prove they can beat Florida (six straight losses) before they can be given serious consideration as a title contender. And Georgia’s stock as SEC favorite dropped a notch when starting tailback Kregg Lumpkin went down with a season-ending knee injury earlier this month. Similar issues involving unfavorable scheduling, departed crucial cogs and dubious rivalry history make No.5 Florida State, No.6 Miami, No.7 Texas and No.8 Michigan Orange Bowl outsiders, as well.

Though USC and Oklahoma aren’t immune to such issues, both look likely to overcome them.

The Trojans have lost a raft of talent since manhandling Michigan 28-14 in the Rose Bowl. Replacing NFL first-rounder Kenechi Udeze, who led the nation in sacks last season (16.5), looked like the primary task of the staff before a rash of off-field issues erupted in Troy.

All-American wideout Mike Williams had his reinstatement appeal denied by the NCAA on Friday, further depleting a receiving corps already missing Keary Colbert (graduation) and Whitney Lewis (academics). Both of last season’s outstanding offensive tackles are gone; All-American Jacob Rogers now plays for Bill Parcells’ Dallas Cowboys, while talented junior Winston Justice (6-foot-6, 310 pounds) has been suspended for the season for pulling a pellet gun on a fellow student. Also out of the mix are running backs Hershel Dennis (assault) and Chauncey Washington (academics).

In fact, it’s hardly surprising the Trojans looked somewhat pedestrian against an average Virginia Tech team Saturday, trailing the Hokies 10-7 until late in the third quarter.

“Certainly, we’ve had more distractions than you’d like in the offseason,” USC coach Pete Carroll said after the game. “But nobody said you have to be at your best in your first game.”

Fortunately for USC, it isn’t likely to need its best before the Orange Bowl. Not only are the Trojans the only team in the nation deep enough to absorb the personnel losses they have suffered, they play in a league so shallow their weaknesses aren’t likely to be exposed.

The Trojans are nearly certain to be a double-digit favorite in all 11 of their remaining regular-season games. They dodge the team that has been the Pac-10’s most consistent over the past five years (Oregon). And California, the team picked to finish second in the league and the only team to beat the Trojans last season (34-31 in three overtimes), must face payback vengeance at the Coliseum (Oct.9). USC could find itself sunning in South Beach come January without playing an opponent remotely approaching the talent and expertise of Oklahoma.

Sure, the Sooners closed the season with dreadful performances against Kansas State and LSU, and quarterback Jason White has absorbed the bulk of criticism surrounding the swoon. That tends to happen when a Heisman Trophy winner completes just 40 of 87 passes and throws no touchdowns and four interceptions in his team’s two defining games. But a month after the two-game whiteout, it leaked out of Norman that White had broken a bone in his right throwing wrist against Kansas State and then doubled his discomfort by breaking a toe in his left foot on the first play from scrimmage against LSU.

“I can’t hang it on that — no excuses,” White said at the Big 12’s media day. “We just didn’t execute our stuff like we had been.”

Yeah, and no wonder. How effective do you think Randy Johnson would be with broken bones in his left wrist and plant foot? White might be unwilling to use his injuries as an excuse, but they certainly go a long way toward explaining how a player who completed 238 of 364 regular-season passes (.654) for 40 touchdowns and just six interceptions in one of the college game’s toughest conferences suddenly forgot how to throw a football.

And even if you still have lingering doubts about White, it’s difficult to question his supporting cast. On offense, Oklahoma returns 10 starters from a squad that finished third in the nation in scoring last season, including All-American wide receiver Michael Clayton (83 receptions for 1,425 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2003) and all five offensive linemen, highlighted by All-American tackle Jammal Brown.

The only departed offensive starter, tight end Lance Donley, caught only 13 balls last season and has been replaced by spring practice standout Bubba Moses. Throw in freshman tailback Adrian Peterson, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound burner who topped every analyst’s blue-chip prep list, and the Oklahoma offense should be even more potent.

On defense, the Sooners return an All-American cornerback (Antonio Perkins) and six other All-Big 12 performers, including speed rushers Jonathan Jackson and Dan Cody (28 career sacks between them), spiritual leader Dusty Dvoracek and safeties Donte Nicholson and Brodney Poole (158 tackles, nine interceptions between them last season).

“It’s fine with us that everybody forgets 12-0 and focuses on those last two games,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said at the media day. “Sure, we stink. I hope everybody we play this year thinks that.”

The two games that leap off the Sooners’ schedule as pivotal are back-to-back October road affairs against No.7 Texas in Dallas and at No.12 Kansas State. Both are possible roadblocks en route to Miami, but the Sooners have won four straight over the Longhorns by an average 31 points and are likely to roll into Manhattan on Oct.16 with violent intentions after last season’s humiliation.

“It’s motivation to work hard throughout two-a-days and throughout the season,” said White, jilted by the Big 12 media in lieu of Kansas State’s Darren Sproles for preseason league MVP honors despite being college football’s first returning Heisman winner since BYU’s Ty Detmer in 1991. “But I came back for one reason and with one goal, and it has nothing to do with individual awards. … This team has some unfinished business.”

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