- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

MIAMI — With all apologies to the Rose Bowl, tomorrow night’s national title game is the granddaddy of them all.

When No. 1 Southern California and No.2 Oklahoma meet in a battle of unbeatens at the Orange Bowl, college football will celebrate the ultimate convergence of marquee-shorting star power, titanic tradition and supreme stakes.

“Buckle up, boys and girls, because this might well be the defining college football game of your generation,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said yesterday. “On paper, this one’s as good as it gets.”

Tomorrow’s game will mark the first time Heisman Trophy winners have clashed in any game, much less a championship bowl tilt. USC junior quarterback Matt Leinart is the decorated dynamo du jour, collecting the bronze boy last month after passing for 2,990 yards, 28 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Oklahoma’s Jason White is last season’s Mr. Heisman, though his stats this season as a senior slinger (2,961 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and six interceptions) perhaps trump last year’s award-winning performance.

If that duo doesn’t top your talent tank, consider that two of the next three-highest vote-getters in the most recent Heisman balloting also will be on hand in Oklahoma superfrosh Adrian Peterson and USC game-breaker Reggie Bush. It’s unlikely any game, much less a title game, has featured four of the top five players in the land.

Peterson, a punishing, upright burner at tailback, turned Herschel Walker’s legendary freshman output at Georgia into a footnote by galloping for 1,843 yards for the Sooners (12-0) this season. Bush, an East-West blur nicknamed “the President,” finished fourth in the nation in all-purpose yardage (2,181), tormenting the Pac-10 as a tailback, receiver and return specialist.

“That’s two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks and two Heisman finalist running backs,” USC coach Pete Carroll said earlier this week. “Throw in another half dozen All-Americans and you’ve got the most anticipated game in a long, long time.”

Actually, the Sooners and Trojans (12-0) boast a total of eight first-team AP All-Americans, which means approximately one third of the top position players in America will be represented by just two of Division I-A’s 119 teams.

“It’s a scouting feast out there, a buffet of future pros,” said one NFL scout at yesterday’s media day at Pro Player Stadium.

If it’s tradition you want, consider that never before have two programs with at least five titles apiece met in the national championship game; USC, with it’s ludicrous roll call of Heisman history, boasts six titles, while the Sooners counter with a nose-snubbing seven.

The coaches … well, OK, it’s not exactly Bear Bryant vs. Bud Wilkinson, but you have to go back to the 1985 Orange Bowl (Oklahoma vs. Penn State) to find another title game that pitted two coaches who already had rings facing one another (Switzer vs. Joe Paterno).

“This is awesome, I think it’s the greatest national championship ever,” said Oklahoma All-American wide receiver Mark Clayton. “I mean, all the Heisman guys, two unbeatens, SC and OU — how could it get better?”

Well, a search of the annals produced only a handful of possible challengers. For one thing, this will be just the 15th bowl meeting between the top two teams in the nation, a fact which eliminates most contenders.

A top candidate is the 1979 Sugar Bowl, where No.2 Alabama and Bear Bryant upset top-ranked Penn State and Joe Paterno 14-7 courtesy of a goal-line stand. But the Crimson Tide already had lost a 24-14 decision at USC that season.

ESPN.com’s Pat Forde nominated the 1973 Sugar Bowl, where Ara Parseghian and his Golden Domers faced Bryant’s ‘Bama. But that game was a little short on star power and was not a No.1 vs. No.2.

Oklahoma beat writer Barry Tramel nominated the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, where the fatigue-clad Hurricanes were upset by Paterno’s Nits in the first real attempt at a title game. But it was such a mismatch on paper, featuring a no-name bunch from Penn State, that it was memorable more for Vinny Testaverde’s pick-a-minute incompetence than a deluge of pregame build-up.

In the final analysis, the 2003 Fiesta Bowl ranks a distant second to tomorrow’s Orange Bowl on the pregame hypemeter. That game also featured two unbeatens, two storied programs, a rack full of All-Americans on both sidelines, the game’s incumbent dynasty (the ‘Canes had won 34 straight games) and the nation’s highest-profile freshman (Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett).

But if USC-Oklahoma goes double-overtime, like that Fiesta Bowl, there no longer will be any argument as to the greatest college football game of all time.

“Lord, I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said yesterday. “But given the caliber of the players and teams involved, I do think you’re looking at an instant classic.”

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