- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

MIAMI — Beware Oklahoma’s EX-factor.

When top-ranked Southern California (12-0) and No.2 Oklahoma (12-0) clash in tonight’s star-charged, super-hyped behemoth bowl, the only major disparity between the nation’s two title suitors will be the Sooners’ considerable edge in experience.

The Trojans might be No.1 in the polls, but Oklahoma clearly is tops in the been-there-done-that category. Tonight’s Orange Bowl marks the third time in the last five seasons the Sooners have taken the field in the BCS title game. And no matter how much USC trumpets last season’s Rose Bowl conquest and this year’s regular-season slate, the current crop of Trojans never has faced a big-game glare like the one they’ll encounter when college football’s brightest lights bear down on Pro Player Stadium.

“We’ve played in other bowl games, but I can assure you this one is a whole different animal,” said Oklahoma senior All-American wideout Mark Clayton. “The stakes are higher, the lights are brighter, the hits are harder and everybody’s watching.”

Clayton should know. Not only did he and senior quarterback Jason White play starring roles in last season’s title-game loss to LSU, both were true freshmen scout-teamers when the Sooners beat Florida State 13-2 for the all-in pot in the 2001 Orange Bowl.

“It’s a little eerie, you know, because we’re staying at the same hotel and practicing on the same field [Barry College],” White said. “Obviously, there wasn’t much pressure on Mark and I back then, because we knew we weren’t going to play. But this whole week has had a very similar feel in terms of prep and the team’s emotional excitement. We’re ready to play.”

Less than a month removed from his Heisman coronation, USC quarterback Matt Leinart would like the media to respect the Trojans’ big-game credentials.

“We played in the Rose Bowl last year in a game that obviously had title implications,” Leinart said. “We played Virginia Tech in front of a hostile crowd this season. We played a top-five team from Cal. We played Notre Dame. We’ve seen our share of big ones.”

Sure, Leinart and Co. played brilliantly against the Wolverines last season, earning a piece of the national title with their performance in Pasadena. There’s just one problem with his logic: the three players that joined Leinart in defining that Trojans performance (defensive end Kenechi Udeze and wideouts Mike Williams and Keary Colbert) won’t be suiting up for USC tonight.

As for Leinart’s three choices as regular-season biggies, none carries the weight one might assume at first blush. First, USC’s 24-13 victory over Virginia Tech came at FedEx Field, not Lane Stadium, in a season-opener against a nascent group of Hokies who had yet to see Bryan Randall and a young receiving corps blossom into the offense which would eventually claim the ACC title.

Second, USC’s 23-17 victory over Cal came in the friendly confines of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and despite a lopsided stat sheet that saw the Trojans more than doubled in total offense (424 yards to 205) and first downs (28-12). Throw in the fact that Cal was decimated in its recent Holiday Bowl outing (45-31) by a Texas Tech team thumped by Oklahoma (28-13), and there’s plenty of transitive property fun to be had at the Trojans’ expense.

Finally, a Notre Dame scalp hasn’t been worth its weight in pyrite in a decade — just ask recently dismissed BYU coach Gary Crowton.

And the Sooners don’t just have more big-game experience than the Trojans; they have more game experience, period. Though the Sooners boast more or equal experience across every unit, nowhere is the disparity more apparent than along the teams’ respective offensive lines.

Oklahoma’s five offensive linemen can claim an NCAA-best 184 combined starts. That’s a staggering average of 36.8 starts per man, or nearly three full seasons of starts. And the Sooners sows aren’t merely experienced, they’re superb. Anchored by Outland Trophy winner Jammal Brown, who didn’t yield a sack or a quarterback hurry this season, Oklahoma’s line gave up just seven sacks — the lowest total in Division I football.

“They are easily the best group we’ve ever had,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “I like the fact that we come in with great experience there and great ability there. That’s going to be a big matchup.”

Compared to their USC counterparts, it’s more like a big mismatch. The Trojans’ offensive line, which allowed 24 sacks this season, features four first-year starters and a combined total of just 71 starts. USC’s most experienced starter, junior guard Fred Matua, has fewer career starts (20) than Oklahoma’s least experienced lineman, junior guard Kelvin Chaisson (25).

“We should have an edge there,” Brown said. “But all that experience doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t come to play.”

A lack of intensity is extremely unlikely from either team, but perhaps even less so from Oklahoma, a team that has been waiting all year to atone for last season’s stretch swoon that concluded with a 21-14 title-game loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

“We heard all year about how we didn’t finish,” senior linebacker Lance Mitchell said earlier this week. “We trained all summer thinking about how we didn’t finish. … Now I can’t sleep, because it’s so close. We’re ready to finish.”

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