This season, Auburn knows what it’s like to be the odd team out, a feeling Southern California knew too well last year.
USC and Oklahoma finished atop the final Bowl Championship Series standings Sunday and will meet in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4 in a title game that, again, might not end the argument about who is No. 1.
Auburn, who is 12-0 like the top two teams, finished third in the BCS points system that relies on the media and coaches polls, plus computer ratings. So the Tigers will have to settle for a Sugar Bowl berth against Virginia Tech on Jan. 3.
“It’s not a perfect system, and if it was we’d all be happy today,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said during ABC’s broadcast of the BCS pairings.
At least Auburn gets to play in one of the glamour games. California was left out of the BCS altogether after Texas passed the Golden Bears and moved into fourth in the final standings. The Longhorns (10-1) will play Big Ten co-champion Michigan (9-2) in the Rose Bowl. The Bears (10-1) were relegated to the Holiday Bowl, certainly not the showcase they were hoping for as the fourth-ranked team in the country.
“As a program, we were set on the Rose Bowl,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “I felt like we did enough to earn that.”
USC finished with .9770 in the standings, and Oklahoma had .9681. Auburn’s grade was .9331. Oklahoma’s strong computer rankings kept the Sooners ahead of the Tigers in the BCS standings, while USC held on to first place thanks to its strong showing in the polls.
Last season, USC was left out of the BCS title game, despite being No. 1 in both polls at the end of the regular season. Instead, Oklahoma played LSU in the Sugar Bowl, even though the Sooners lost the Big 12 title game.
When all the bowls were finished, LSU won the BCS championship, and USC was No. 1 in the final media poll.
“We certainly understand what it feels like when you wished you’d been in this game,” said USC coach Pete Carroll. “Unfortunately, there were three undefeated teams and with this system one of them was going to be left out.”
In an attempt to avoid a repeat of 2003’s mess, the BCS scaled back its formula, making it far more reliant on the human polls. But another problem arose, of course: For the first time since the BCS was implemented in 1998, there were more than two unbeaten teams from major conferences.
“The bottom line is whatever formula we have is going to be the target of some significant criticism at the end of the day,” BCS coordinator and Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg said.
It worked great for Utah (11-0), which officially became the first team from a non-BCS conference to receive a bid to one of the four $14 million bowl games, earning a spot in the Fiesta Bowl against Big East representative Pittsburgh (8-3).
The Utes, from the Mountain West Conference, will play their last game under coach Urban Meyer on Jan. 1 in Tempe, Ariz. Meyer is headed to Florida.
The Trojans and Sooners went wire-to-wire as one and two, respectively, in both polls, and lined up the same way in the BCS standings for all but the first week, when Miami was No. 2 and Oklahoma third.
Auburn worked its way up both the polls and the BCS. The Tigers shared No. 2 with the Sooners in the AP Top 25 for one week but could never get past the Sooners.
So Sunday’s Orange Bowl announcement was not surprising after Auburn, Oklahoma and USC all finished their regular seasons with wins Saturday.
Texas’ move past Cal might have caught some people off guard, though.
It looked as if the Bears controlled their BCS destiny a few weeks ago and simply needed to win out to reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959. But Texas began gaining ground in the polls, especially with the coaches, as Longhorns coach Mack Brown lobbied for votes.
Texas’ first BCS bid also means the Rose Bowl won’t have its traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup.
As for the Orange Bowl, it’s Oklahoma, the team that most people thought shouldn’t have been in championship game last year, against USC, the team that most people thought should have been there instead.
“No question you have just a better feeling going into it,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “It sure is a lot easier. Those wins give you a lot of energy and a boost.”
The Sooners and Trojans bring a total of 11 AP national titles into the game.
Oklahoma’s seventh and last national title came in 2000 and was wrapped up with an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State. The controversy heading into that game was whether the BCS had picked the best one-loss team to face the unbeaten Sooners. The Seminoles made it to the title game despite losing in the regular season to Miami. The Hurricanes won the Sugar Bowl and finished second in the final rankings to the Sooners.
The Sooners and Trojans also have four of the leading Heisman Trophy contenders, two on each side.
Oklahoma quarterback Jason White is making a run at becoming just the second two-time Heisman winner, while tailback Adrian Peterson has a chance to become the first freshman to win the award.
USC quarterback Matt Leinart has put up numbers equal to White, and versatile scatback Reggie Bush might be the most exciting and dangerous player in the country.
“It’s going to be a nightmare for the defensive coaches,” Carroll said. “I think it’s a perfect matchup.”
Iowa State accepted an invitation on Sunday to make a return trip to the Independence Bowl. The Cyclones will play Miami (Ohio) in the Dec. 28 game in Shreveport, La., the fourth bowl trip in five years for coach Dan McCarney’s program.
“We’re thrilled about it,” McCarney said. “It’s a great opportunity, a great situation.”
Iowa State played in the 2001 Independence Bowl, losing to Alabama 14-13 after Tony Yelk’s last-minute field goal attempt was ruled wide right.
The Cyclones had expected to go to the Houston Bowl, which picks its Big 12 team after the Independence Bowl chooses and pays about $100,000 less per team.
But when Texas was invited to the Rose Bowl to give the Big 12 a second team in the BCS games, Iowa State moved up in the selection order. The Independence Bowl had the fourth pick of the remaining Big 12 teams and took the Cyclones.
Iowa State made a dramatic turnaround this season after going 2-10 a year ago and finishing 0-8 in the Big 12. The Cyclones (6-5) won four of their last five games and tied Colorado for first place in the Big 12 North.
Miami (8-4) lost to Toledo 35-27 in the Mid-American Conference championship game last Thursday. The RedHawks beat Louisville in the GMAC Bowl last season.
Oklahoma State will play against No. 24 Ohio State in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29.
The Cowboys (7-4), who finished fifth in the Big 12 South, accepted the Alamo Bowl’s invitation on Sunday to play in the 65,000-seat Alamodome in San Antonio.
Ohio State (7-4), which placed fifth in the Big Ten, accepted the Alamo Bowl bid Nov. 23 after upsetting then-No. 7 Michigan in its regular season finale. The Buckeyes beat Oklahoma State 37-13 in 1989 in the only meeting between the two teams.
The teams enter the games on different paths. The Cowboys started the season 5-0 before losing four of their last six games and falling out of the Top 25. The Buckeyes have won four of their last five games after a three-game midseason losing streak.
It’s the third straight season the Cowboys will play a bowl game in Texas. Oklahoma State played in the Houston Bowl in 2002 and the Cotton Bowl last season.
Ohio State has played in bowls each of the past five seasons, including the Fiesta Bowl the past two seasons.