Who’s No. 1? Title game may not tell

Published 9:25 pm Tuesday, January 6, 2009

MIAMI — It used to be so simple.

Two polls, a few bowls and — in the end — a national champion, maybe two.

Now there already are three teams claiming to be the best in the land, and none of them is playing Thursday night in what’s supposed to be the national championship game between No. 2 Oklahoma and top-ranked Florida. Utah’s legal eagle is so mad he’s trying to figure out a way to blow up the Bowl Championship Series once and for all.

With Utah having completed another perfect season — its second in four years — that wasn’t good enough to even get the Utes into the BCS title game. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced Tuesday he is investigating the BCS for a possible violation of federal antitrust laws.

He contends the agreement unfairly puts schools such as Utah, Boise State and others in conferences without an automatic bid to the most lucrative bowl games at a competitive and financial disadvantage.

Maybe the AGs in California and Texas can cook up something up to try to help Southern California and Texas?

Pete Carroll has already proclaimed his USC team the best in the country. Texas coach Mack Brown is proud to say his Texas team is tops. And, of course, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham will be giving the unbeaten Utes his vote for No. 1.

Wait a minute: What about the Gators and Sooners?

“This is the national championship game,” Oklahoma defensive end Auston English said. “There’s a reason they call this the national championship game and all the other ones bowl games.”

The winner at Dolphin Stadium will get a crystal trophy and the No. 1 ranking in at least one of the major polls, probably both.

This, however, is certain: There will be no undisputed national champion this season. The debate will rage on long after the confetti flies.

Neither the Florida or Oklahoma athletic directors would comment on Shurtleff’s plan to investigate the BCS, and BCS officials also declined to talk about it.

This is not the first time a team that didn’t play in the title game made a good case to be No. 1. But never have so many so boldly stated they deserve the national crown.

Considering the top six teams in the final regular-season AP Top 25 entered the bowl season with one loss, maybe it’s no surprise.

First, No. 5 USC jumped all over No. 6 Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Only some garbage-time touchdowns made the score, 38-24, look as if it was a competitive game.

As if that wasn’t enough to convince the football world just who’s the best, Carroll had this parting shot before he left the field: “With all due respect, those are two great programs (Florida and Oklahoma), I don’t think anybody can beat the Trojans.”

Carroll, a staunch and vocal supporter of a major college playoff system, does not have a vote in the USA Today coaches’ poll.

The American Football Coaches Association has agreed to have its poll voters make the winner of the BCS title game No. 1 on their final ballots.

Nonetheless, that apparently won’t stop Brown and Whittingham from casting votes for their teams.

“Someone would have to convince me otherwise and that hasn’t happened,” Whittingham said Tuesday.

While their votes would still be tabulated, Brown and Whittingham also might get a stern talking to from Grant Teaff, executive director of the AFCA. Teaff said earlier this week he planned to send out a memo reminding his members of that agreement.

Only after the 2003 season, when LSU beat Oklahoma in the BCS national title game, but Southern California was voted No. 1 in the AP Top 25, have coaches broken that agreement.

Three coaches, including Carroll, voted for USC that year.

No. 7 Utah stunned No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last week, with a convincing 31-17 victory and finished the season as major college football’s only unbeaten team at 13-0. Playing in the Mountain West Conference hurts the Utes’ case, even though the league finished 6-2 against the Pac-10.

The Longhorns have felt all along they should be playing in the BCS title game instead of Oklahoma. Texas beat the Sooners 45-35 in October. But the Big 12’s divisional tiebreaker and BCS standings prevented them from making it to Miami.

There was some hope in Austin that an impressive victory against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, combined with an Oklahoma victory in Miami, would lead to AP voters making the Longhorns their national champion.

As exciting as Texas’ 24-21 victory on Monday was, it didn’t seem to help their cause.

In an informal survey of AP pollsters taken Tuesday, 12 of 30 voters to respond said they either were likely or definitely planning to vote the winner of Florida-Oklahoma game No. 1.

“In my mind there is no debate,” Barker Davis from The Washington Times said in an e-mail. “This isn’t like USC/LSU a few years back. The two teams who were the most impressive from the nation’s two most impressive conferences actually made it to the title game, and my vote is a lock to the Florida/Oklahoma winner.”

Most of the 18 other voters who said they were undecided had USC, Utah and the winner of the national championship game in the running. There was mild support for Texas, and only if Oklahoma won an ugly game against Florida.

“It’s not a lock that I’ll vote the winner of the BCS title game as national champ,” John Heuser of The Ann Arbor News said in an e-mail. “If neither team looks especially good, I’ll have no problem voting for a different team.”

Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald said he has made up his mind and the Utes are going to be No. 1 on his ballot.

“Would I have Utah favored in a game against Florida or Oklahoma? Probably not,” he said in an e-mail. “But it doesn’t matter. Utah won every game in the regular season — which is the playoffs in the current, flawed system — and then went to the deep South and whacked a good Alabama team.”