Why Not Us?

One-loss USC and undefeated Utah both made their case to be included in the national-title talk, and proved beyond a doubt that a playoff is more needed than ever
January 12, 2009

IT'S A good thing Mark Sanchez is such a humble fellow, otherwise those who don't possess as wide an array of talents—which is to say, pretty much everyone—just might be jealous enough to hate the USC quarterback. It wasn't enough, for instance, that in the Trojans' annual Rose Bowl dismantling of a Big Ten team (this year's victim was Penn State) on New Year's Day, Sanchez displayed a passing arm so accurate that the ball seemed to find his receivers by tracking device. Or that his feet were so nimble he continually frustrated the Nittany Lions' pass rushers. Or that when he removed his helmet, his features were so darkly handsome that one woman yelled from the stands after the game, "I love you! Call me!"

No, Sanchez, who threw for four touchdowns and ran for another in the Trojans' 38--24 victory, had to add that one more Mr. Perfect touch by showing his comfort with the media afterward—in two languages. He slid flawlessly between English and Spanish as broadcasters besieged him on the field in the postgame chaos, giving credit for his performance to just about every coach on the USC staff and making his case for the Trojans' national championship worthiness in both tongues. At one point, before he jogged away to conduct the USC band, Sanchez asked a reporter from a Spanish-language radio station a rhetorical question: "¬øQuién es mejor que nosotros?" Translation: "Who is better than us?"

One thing that's certain about this bowl season is that it will not provide a satisfactory answer, not even after Florida and Oklahoma settle the BCS championship on Thursday in Miami. The Gators or the Sooners will be one-loss champions, and it will hardly be fair to say that either one is better than USC (12--1), which devastated Penn State in the first half and cruised the rest of the way, or undefeated Utah (13--0), which shocked Alabama 31--17 in the Sugar Bowl last Friday night. No matter the outcome of the title game, there will be at least two other teams—three, if Texas (11--1) defeats Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, which was played on Monday night after SI went to press—who will have every right to ask exactly what makes Florida or Oklahoma a more deserving champion than they are.

The bowls did expose the other undefeated team (Boise State lost to TCU 17--16 in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23), and they trampled any claims to the crown that Texas Tech might have had as Mississippi beat the Red Raiders 47--34 in the Cotton Bowl, but they strengthened the cases of the Trojans and the Utes. USC's fatal flaw was its 27--21 loss to then 1--2 Oregon State in Corvallis on Sept. 25 and the perceived weakness of the rest of the Pac-10. But Oregon State finished 9--4, including a Sun Bowl victory (albeit an uninspiring 3--0 decision) over Pittsburgh. As for the supposedly lightweight Pac-10, the conference's teams went 5--0 in the bowl season, with wins over teams from the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Big East and Mountain West Conference. Suddenly the Trojans' clunker in Corvallis doesn't look nearly so damning.

Utah, of course, had no losses to overcome, just the relatively low profile of its league, the Mountain West. How seriously could the Utes be taken, the pre--Sugar Bowl wisdom held, when their biggest victories came against Oregon State, BYU and TCU? But the win over Alabama, which was ranked No. 1 for five weeks and was undefeated until it lost to Florida in the SEC championship game, makes the Utes' spotless record much harder to dismiss. "I think people get caught up looking at the athletes and the glamour of the name that a program carries," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "But there's a reason why you play the game."

Except that USC and Utah won't get to play the game, at least not the one they think they deserve to play. "With all due respect to Florida and Oklahoma, those two great programs, I don't think anybody can beat us," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "We can win by playing defense, we can win by running the football, we can win by passing it. I'm not saying that whoever wins that crystal ball [the BCS championship trophy] isn't deserving. I'm just saying I'd love to keep playing, that's all."

The Utes, who finished as the only undefeated team in Division I-A, were even more emphatic about their right to be called the best team in the nation. "I know where I'm voting us," Whittingham said, referring to the coaches' poll. "I'm voting us Number 1. End of story. I don't know why we wouldn't deserve consideration. Somebody explain to me why we wouldn't."

Utah's critics might point to Hawaii, the last non-BCS team to go undefeated and earn a BCS bowl berth. It endured a 41--10 beating from Georgia in last year's Sugar Bowl, a fact Alabama coach Nick Saban may have had on his mind when he indirectly slighted the Utes after the Crimson Tide's loss to Florida. "We were the only team that plays in a real BCS conference that went 12--0, which is very difficult to do," he said. The quote became such a frequent topic of discussion in Utah that by game time, every Ute probably could have recited it verbatim. "It made me angry," said Utah quarterback Brian Johnson, who threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns against the Tide. "It gave us a good chip to wear on our shoulder."

After the loss, it was hard to tell if Saban was more apologetic or annoyed by the entire issue. "I guess if that gave them their motivation, then I'm responsible for the way they played and I'm responsible for the way we played," he said. "I guess I'm responsible for the whole damn kit and caboodle."

It no doubt delighted the Utah fans to see their team get the jump on Alabama partly by outfoxing Saban. The Tide seemed unprepared for the no-huddle offense the Utes used on their first possession, a 68-yard drive that took only 1:19 off the clock and ended with a seven-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to wideout Brent Casteel. Two more scoring drives of less than two minutes each stunned both 'Bama and its backers, giving Utah a 21--0 lead before the first quarter was over, and the Tide never really recovered. "I don't think we gave them their due coming into the game," said Alabama running back Glen Coffee.

USC WOULD never be so underestimated. In fact the Trojans have exactly the opposite problem. While Utah fights for credibility, USC is considered such an elite program that it is held to a remarkably high—perhaps unfairly high—standard. Since their season opener at Auburn in 2003, the Trojans have been favored in every game except one, at Oregon last season. With a team that highly regarded, the tendency is to see the occasional lapse as inexcusable, even when, as is their custom, they finish the season as impressively as anyone in the nation. USC supporters would argue that the loss at Oregon State is no bigger a blemish than, for instance, Florida's loss at home two days later to Ole Miss, but not everyone is so forgiving. "They take one week off a year," analyst Jerry Palm, publisher of CollegeBCS.com, told the Los Angeles Times. "That's not offense. That's not defense. That's not respecting your opponent every week."

It's little wonder that Carroll and many of his players favor a playoff, which would perfectly suit the Trojans' ability to crank up their game in January. "It just seems like championships should be decided at the end of the year, not the middle," said USC linebacker Kaluka Maiava. But that's not the way it works in the bizarro world of the BCS, which is why USC found itself in the same position as last season, when an inexcusable midseason slip, a home loss to 41-point underdog Stanford, helped keep them out of the championship game.

And just as they did last year, when they pounded Illinois 49--17 in the Rose Bowl, the Trojans took out their frustration on a Big Ten representative. Against Penn State, they took advantage of an edge in team speed as they usually do in the Rose Bowl, making the Nittany Lions look like they were playing in snowshoes, especially in the first half. Wide receiver Damian Williams set the tone in the first quarter by flashing past safety Anthony Scirrotto on a post pattern and catching a perfectly thrown ball from Sanchez for a 27-yard touchdown, and the Trojans were off to the races. By halftime they had a 31--7 lead and Sanchez had thrown for 276 yards and three touchdowns. "I remember coming to the line and hearing one of their coaches shouting to the defensive backs, 'Back up! Back up!'" said USC wideout Ronald Johnson.

Now Sanchez has a dilemma. A redshirt junior, he can make himself eligible for the NFL draft, in which he would likely be an early-round choice. Or he can return for another season, no doubt starting on the unofficial short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. "The only thing I know is that it would be hard to leave this place," he says. "I'm having too much fun." But how much more fun would it have been for Sanchez to match up against Florida quarterback Tim Tebow a week from now, or for the top-ranked USC defense to tangle with the prolific Oklahoma offense? How much fun would it have been to see if Utah could follow that Alabama upset by surprising the Trojans, Gators or Sooners?

We will never know, and therein lies the continuing conundrum of the BCS. Questions arise that will forever go answered. Only in this system can a season end yet somehow feel so unfinished.

"With all due respect to Florida and Oklahoma, I DON'T THINK ANYBODY can beat us," said USC's Carroll.

"I know where I'm voting us," said Utah's Whittingham. "I'M VOTING US NUMBER 1. End of story."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Read MillerPOINT MEN Ronald Johnson (8) caught two TD passes from Sanchez (6), and Utah's Brian Johnson lit up 'Bama for three scores. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (SANCHEZ)[See caption above] PHOTOBOB ROSATO (JOHNSON)[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECK (CARROLL) PHOTOBOB ROSATOROLLED TIDE David Reed's 30-yard catch and lunge set up the Utes' second TD as they raced to a 21--0 lead after 11 minutes. PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above] PHOTOBOB ROSATO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)