Saturday January 3rd, 2004

Upon arriving here Friday at the site of Sunday's Sugar Bowl national championship game, one can't help but notice how different the scene is from the one in Pasadena, Calif., less than 24 hours ago.

There, the jubilant USC Trojans danced around the Rose Bowl turf Thursday following their decisive win over Michigan, chalking up their national championship coronation as a given and professing their opinion that the LSU-Oklahoma outcome would mean "nothing."

Standing on the Superdome turf during Friday's Media Day event, Sooners defensive tackle Tommie Harris expressed his own apathy -- about USC-Michigan.

"We went out to dinner and it was on TV," he said. "I watched the end."

"Strange" and "subdued" are the two words most applicable to the feel surrounding college football's sixth BCS national championship game.

Gone is the week-long national buildup that's accompanied these games in the past, replaced by a brief two-day prologue that centers as much around another game just played as the one that's about to be. In fact, it seems many people have already made up their minds who was the best team in the country this season before even watching the two official contenders.

Whatever the prevailing opinion may be in the rest of the country, however, the city blocks surrounding the Superdome remain in a vacuum. A sea of purple and gold has enveloped this city ever since the home-state team earned its invitation, and the contingent from Oklahoma -- 65,000 of whom requested tickets -- has been partying its way through the French Quarter for days, unaffected by their team's stunning setback in the Big 12 championship game and unsympathetic to any cries of injustice.

"We don't care if they [USC] think they should have been here," said Sooners linebacker Teddy Lehman. "They shouldn't have lost to California."

The idea of a split national championship is hardly new to college football. Ten times in the last 50 years -- or about once every five years -- it's happened.

But ever since the advent of the BCS and its emphasis on a true 1 vs. 2 championship game, the public no longer seems so accepting of such pluralism. Already the talking points for an eternal debate are forming, with USC players referring to themselves as "the people's champion," while the Sooners and Tigers point out that they're the ones playing for "that crystal football."

"This game has been declared the national championship," said LSU defensive end Marcus Spears. "If we win, I'll consider myself and my team the national champions."

"USC deserves what they're going to get, but the focus isn't on them," said Tigers receiver Michael Clayton. "If we have to share the championship, that's the way it will be, but both sides will deserve it."

Oklahoma and LSU have yet to even determine a winner and already their players are being asked whether they'd like the opportunity to play one more game against the Trojans. Just like the USC players a night earlier, they said they'd welcome it.

"If they asked us right after the game to go and play, I'd be on the first flight to USC," said Harris.

Actually, Oklahoma looked into it. Sooners AD Joe Castiglione said he inquired in mid-December about playing the Trojans in August's season-opening BCA Classic.

"We called them when we heard the [Pete Carroll] comment that they'd play anyone, anywhere," said Castiglione. "But they'd already committed to Virginia Tech."

Heisman winner White, who recently announced he's returning for another season, would have welcomed that opportunity. In watching USC's big-play offense, he couldn't help but notice a similarity between the Trojans and his team.

"Not only do they strike quickly, a lot of the plays they run look just like ours," said White. "I could really tell that they are a great team."

That, however, is about the extent of any USC discussion you could hope to get into this week with a Sooner or Tiger. Swoon all you want over Matt Leinart and Mike Williams, they don't care. They know that whatever the voters have to say about the Trojans, they're still going to end up atop a poll if they win their game Sunday.

"I just want to win the Sugar Bowl. It's the national championship game," said LSU defensive tackle Chad Lavalais. "I guess there could be a split, but me personally, I don't really want to get involved in all of that. That's something for the fans and media to get involved with."

Suffice to say, they already have.

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