USC, Florida, LSU shine in game's 'Golden Era' - East Valley Tribune: Sports

USC, Florida, LSU shine in game's 'Golden Era'

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Posted: Wednesday, September 2, 2009 4:33 pm | Updated: 1:38 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Fat lot of good having Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell on the USC sideline did.

Then again, they weren't the only guys wearing Trojan jerseys who failed to lay a hand on Texas' Vince Young the whole night, let alone when the Longhorns' quarterback took off for the right corner of the end zone with 8 yards and 19 seconds left in the 2006 national championship game at the Rose Bowl. If just a single USC defender arrived in time to stop Young, college football would have only one three-time national champion since 2000 and no debate about the team of the decade.

Instead, three schools have won it all twice — so if you're not in that club, take a seat.

That means you, Oklahoma, even with the best overall record (102-19) and the most Top 10 finishes (eight in nine years) of the bunch. You, too, Texas, since even a win in the game of the century — see above — still only counts as one championship. And don't forget to save chairs for Miami and Ohio State.

Sorry, too, if you're what used to be known as a "small school."

Six Division III titles since 2000 makes Mount Union the unchallenged team of the decade — in Division III. Ditto for those four Division II crowns at Grand Valley State, and the back-to-back-to-back FCS championship trophies collecting dust at Appalachian State.

This stage is reserved for the big boys. And in what has been the sport's golden era by just about any measure — talent, dollars, attendance, TV ratings, TV deals, classic games, upsets for the ages and yes, even celebrity fans — there are only three contenders still standing.

The resumes:

— Southern California owns the longest sustained run of excellence, a 34-game win streak from 2003-05 that began after losing in triple overtime to California, included two national championships, and ended just shy of a three-peat when Young scampered in for the winning score at the Rose Bowl. The Trojans also have won seven straight conference titles, featured the most Heisman Trophy Award winners in the group (3), most NFL draft picks (53) first-round selections (14), and since Pete Carroll's arrival in 2001, the winningest active coach in the game.

— Florida has the momentum, grabbing two national championships in the last three years, and with QB Tim Tebow and last season's fire-breathing defense returning intact, the Gators are a consensus preseason pick to win a third. But they'll need it to overcome a lousy start to the decade — a 23-15 record in the three years after Ron Zook took over for Steve Spurrier in 2002, not to mention the stepback seasons coach Urban Meyer's teams posted on either side of the 2006 title.

— Louisiana State won both its titles in New Orleans, essentially home games, and with two different coaches. It wasn't that long ago, either, that Carroll could walk into Shreveport, La., and recruit quarterback John David Booty out from under the Tigers' nose. And if we're playing three degrees of separation, Nick Saban walked out on LSU after a title to coach the NFL's Miami Dolphins, a job that Carroll was offered first and didn't even seriously consider. But Les Miles, Saban's successor, has reclaimed the state's fertile recruiting ground and like Carroll, his name bubbles up near the top of the wish list every time one of the top jobs in coaching becomes vacant.

Another title this year for any of those three settles the debate. And if Oklahoma were to win a second instead — no small feat, given the Sooners' 1-3 record in title bouts since 2000 — then the program's sustained excellence brings it squarely back into the argument. In fact, statistical analyst George Sarkisian crunched most of the same numbers from the past decade used to determine the annual Massey Rating — records, rankings, strength of schedule, margin of victory, offensive and defensive rankings, etc. — and rated Oklahoma well ahead of USC (fifth), Florida (seventh) and LSU (which didn't make his Top 10).

And if none of those scenarios play out?

Southern Cal gets the nod.

Carroll has turned USC into the closest thing to a national program that college football has seen in decades, willing to play anyone, anywhere, anytime and mercilessly carving up opponents in nearly every postseason bowl appearance. For all the talk about how much tougher the Southeastern Conference is than the Pac-10 — which went 5-0 in last season's bowl games, by the way — look at who Florida and LSU choose to schedule outside the conference.

———

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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