Many pundits, peering into the murky crystal ball that makes preseason predictions, figured a star-laden University of Oklahoma football team would wind up in the Nokia Sugar Bowl, playing for the national championship. Most, however, didn't pick Louisiana State University (LSU), talent-rich but relatively unproven. Here's a recap of both schools' seasons, which resulted in them clashing for the title.
THE SOONERS (12-1): While college football is inherently unpredictable, Oklahoma for most of the season lived up to its hype. Led by coach Bob Stoops, 55-10 during his five years in Norman, the Sooners tied a record this year by having five players named to The Associated Press' All-American team. Led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jason White, other Sooners selected were defensive lineman Tommie Harris, linebacker Teddie Lehman, cornerback Derrick Strait and all-purpose player Antonio Perkins.
The Sooners won their closest victory in the second game before Big 12 play began, a 20-13 win at Alabama. Thus, the Sooners proved early in September that they could play a tough, physical style against an athletic team. However, until the Big 12 title game three months later, the Sooners would rarely have to tap such inner strengths, as no school came close. The Sooners stood at 4-0 and atop all the polls heading into Big 12 play; besides Alabama, early season non-conference opponents North Texas, Fresno State and UCLA were all overmatched and outscored 148-55, collectively. And, surprisingly, Oklahoma's run to capture the Big 12 South title was also relatively easy. After opening conference play with a 53-7 thumping of Iowa State, Oklahoma headed south to Dallas and the neutral-site game with Texas, a fierce rival played annually in what's dubbed "The Red River Shootout." Hype leading up to the game between the two powerhouses brought ESPN's GameDay crew to cover the contest, which ended up being a 65-13 cakewalk for Oklahoma.
With rival Texas behind them, the Sooners cruised to easy wins over Missouri, Colorado and Oklahoma State before humiliating Texas A&M 77-0. The team closed with impressive wins over Baylor and Texas Tech. The Sooners' play all season was so dominant that even if the team lost to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) formula -- composed of poll and computer rankings, among other statistics -- would still keep them at No. 1 and in play for the national title. Well, the unthinkable occurred, and Kansas State shocked Oklahoma -- and by extension the entire nation and defenders of the BCS system -- in a 35-7 win. Yet, the powerful Sooners remained strong enough in the BCS rankings to earn a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
THE TIGERS (12-1): Plenty of people across Louisiana had a special feeling about this year's LSU team, but such sentiment is expressed every August. Still, head coach Nick Saban had amassed enough talent in his four years at LSU -- each year catching one of the nation's best recruiting classes -- that the experts figured the Tigers to be a solid team, with The Associated Press ranking them 14th in its preseason poll. Led by the steady play of quarterback Matt Mauck, who's surrounded by several world-class athletes on offense, and the tenacious play of Chad Lavalais, who anchors perhaps the best defensive line in the country, LSU seemed to get better as the season progressed.
LSU opened the season with a weak non-conference schedule that came close to costing the school precious points in the BCS' strength-of-schedule component. Outside their brutal SEC games, the Tigers faced two mediocre in-state schools in UL-Monroe and Louisiana Tech, plus weak teams in Arizona and Western Illinois. Yet, LSU rose well above the challenge in those four games, with the first three serving as a tune-up for conference play. The Tigers opened SEC play when fifth-ranked Georgia visited Baton Rouge in a battle of two top-10 teams and favorites to win their respective divisions in the conference. Before an LSU-record crowd of 92,251, Skyler Green, from Westwego and Higgins High School, caught the winning touchdown with 1:22 left in a tied game; LSU won 17-10. A rout over Mississippi State was then followed by the season's only loss, 19-7 to Florida at home. However, LSU rebounded with a 33-7 win over South Carolina, a victory that set up a home stretch over top conference teams. With hopes for playing for the SEC championship on the line week in and week out, the Tigers hit their stride at the right time. The defense smothered Auburn in a 31-7 win, then helped crush Alabama 27-3. A much-hyped showdown with rival Ole Miss, then undefeated and atop division standings, was next, with LSU squeaking out a 17-14 win in Oxford. LSU clinched its SEC West title with a post-Thanksgiving 55-24 whipping of Arkansas.
As the Tigers won games down the stretch in impressive fashion, their standings in the poll rose accordingly, and when it came time for the SEC championship game in Atlanta -- a rematch with Georgia -- the national championship game was within reach, with a little luck. LSU took care of business on its end with a 34-13 dismantling of Georgia. Fate and the domino effect of several games that Saturday put LSU at number two in the BCS rankings and poised for its first national championship in nearly 50 years.
- Oklahoma quarterback Jason White passed for 3,744 yards and 40 touchdowns this season before winning the Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to the best college football player.
- In just four years as LSU head coach, Nick Saban has elevated the Tigers into one of the top programs in the country, culminating this year in a 12-1 season and Coach of the Year honors from The Associated Press.