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Monday, December 29, 2003
ESPN 100: Games of Chance

ESPN The Magazine

There's a Harrah's Casino in the middle of downtown New Orleans, which figures, since you need a pit boss to explain the odds of three teams rolling the bones for the chance at one national championship. Or maybe two.

Okay, let's see & the season will end on Jan. 4, almost assuredly in some state of chaos, all because the BCS is messier than the ralph room at Pat O'Brien's on New Year's Eve. Think about it. First, you've got USC, No.1 in the media and coaches' polls, but squeezed out of the title game. Still, if the Trojans beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Jan.1, on what is essentially their home turf, they'll likely claim the AP's top spot. Meanwhile, No. 1-in-the-BCS Oklahoma plays No. 2 LSU in the Sugar Bowl three days later, with the winner guaranteed the coaches-sponsored BCS trophy. In review, a team with an outside chance (USC) has to win, and then wait to see if the team given a second chance (LSU) beats the team recovering from a blown chance (Oklahoma). If USC wins, no matter what happens in the Sugar Bowl, it's moot-court heaven.

A one-loss USC will argue a win against the Wolverines makes them true national champs, the Trojans' only blemish being a three-point, triple-OT loss at bowl-bound California. A one-loss LSU will say a victory against the computers' choice in the game meant to decide everything makes it rightful owner of all bragging rights. Likewise, a one-loss OU, which was thisclose to ESPN Classic status, will count on 12 straight decisive victories and a Sugar Bowl conquest of "home team" LSU to erase that loss to 11-win Kansas State. This season, the only sure thing in D1 football is this: The Big Crap Shoot will be revised, yet again. -- Gene Wojciechowski

BLOWN CHANCE
By Gene Wojciechowski

Oklahoma is out to prove it didn't lose more than a Big 12 title to Kansas State.

This hasn't been a December to remember in Norman. The Sooners lost the Big 12 championship, their No. 1 rank in the polls, their place on the short list of all-time greats, their co-defensive coordinator and their shield of invincibility. Of course, it's best not to mention this checklist of squandered opportunity to Bob Stoops. He's the first to admit K-State whupped his Sooners fair and square, and long after the 35-7 loss he was congratulating Wildcat players and coaches as they walked by the OU locker room. But don't take that as a sign OU has lost its Sooner swagger. "We're not a fragile team," says Stoops.

Okay, but K-State exposed pressure points, and maybe a fatal flaw: the Wildcats ran for 292 yards. LSU, which gained 293 against Georgia in the SEC title game, can read the writing on the boxscore. "I'm sure it's what they're going to do," says Sooners defensive end Dan Cody. "I can't say I blame them." Before the K-State game, OU's constant had been a tough defense. Now the Sooners have something to prove, though one of their coordinators, Mike Stoops, already has one foot at the Arizona campus.

OU does have precedent on its side. It won the 2000 BCS championship with an unbalanced pass-first plan. This season, they're ninth in the air, 61st on land. So the question is: can one game undo a season of dominance? Not as quickly as the Sooners can undo it themselves. "Everyone was tooting our horns," Stoops says. "Now they've reversed their position. We shouldn't have listened then, and we shouldn't listen now."

COMEBACK SOONER
Dan Cody's 2000 national championship ring sits in a safety deposit box in his hometown of Coalgate, Okla. (pop. 2,005). Cody would love to add to his jewelry collection with a win against LSU, but if it doesn't happen, he'll deal with it. "I'm just a different guy than I was," says the junior defensive end.

Cody was one of only three true freshmen to earn playing time on that memorable 2000 OU defense. After becoming a starter the next season, he played in the opener against North Carolina, then stunned his teammates by up and leaving the program.

Overwhelmed by depression, Cody had lost his desire to play football. "I just quit and walked away," he says. "I thought at that moment I was going to be done. I wasn't looking ahead. I had tunnel vision. I couldn't see very far." Cody dropped football cold turkey. He attended a few games, but that was it. Mostly, he underwent counseling and began to cope with the trickle-down effects of his depression. By year's end, Cody had made another decision: he wanted to play again. Coach Bob Stoops welcomed him back in time for winter conditioning drills. He played in all 13 games in 2002, and started 12 games this season, leading the Sooners with nine sacks.

"My life has taken a big change this year," he says. "When you're depressed, you can take any one thing and make it bad. But for the first time since I've been here, I feel like I'm contributing."

BEST CHANCE
Trey Right Bunch-Firm-Scissors Snag. The Sooners like to run the trips formation with three receivers in a "bunch" configuration. This set causes alignment problems for the defense and gives Jason White (18), who either lines up in the gun or takes a five-step drop, some easy throws.

Jason White's Reads:
1. Go over the top to Mark Clayton (9) on post or Jejuan Rankins (3) on corner
2. Work snag to Brandon Jones (81) versus man
3. Hit the checkdowns, Lance Donley (86) or Kejuan Jones (20)

WHY OU WON 12
The Sooners were a perfect storm: an opportunistic defense (31 forced turnovers) led by DT Tommie Harris; a high-scoring offense behind Heisman-hoisting QB Jason White (40 TDs, 8 INTs); special teams to die for with returner extraordinaire Antonio Perkins (3 TD returns in one game); and a great kicking game (Trey DiCarlo hit 19 of 22 FGs).

SECOND CHANCE
By Ivan Maisel

For a guy whose team had never finished better than ninth in the BCS rankings, Nick Saban sure has faith in the strange way college football picks its title contenders. LSU was 12th in the season's first BCS ranking, behind, among others, Northern Illinois. By Nov.8, the Tigers still ranked only seventh. They'd lost to Florida, 19-7, and their nonconference schedule (Louisiana-Monroe, Western Illinois) wasn't impressing the computers.

Saban told his guys to be patient, and their persistence was rewarded with late-season wins against Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia (again). When losses by Hawaii and Notre Dame weakened USC's schedule, the Tigers nosed out the Trojans for a Sugar Bowl berth. "We were in a must-win situation since the Florida game," Saban admits.

Saban had come to Baton Rouge from Michigan State, with a rep for winning the close ones. But his Spartans never won a Big Ten title, and he liked the idea of coaching the state's biggest school instead of recruiting against it. Given another chance to build a national contender, Saban dug in. He barricaded Louisiana's doors to the recruiters who once spirited away Marshall Faulk, Kordell Stewart and Warrick Dunn.

Still, the guts of his team is a core of guys who, like their coach, welcomed a second chance. Quarterback Matt Mauck was a pro baseball washout. All-America defensive tackle Chad Lavalais was a prison guard before enrolling at LSU. Devery Henderson, once a tailback, didn't blossom until he moved to wideout. They succeeded because Saban stayed patient. Their payoff comes on Jan. 4.

BEST CHANCE
Spread Left-Lion. From a seven-step drop, Matt Mauck reads the D and chooses between Michael Clayton on a square-in versus two-deep coverage, or Devery Henderson on a deep route versus man. Henderson can convert the curl to a streak if he sees man.

MATT MAUCK'S READS
1. Against Cover 1, go to Henderson (9)
2. Against Cover 2, look for square-in to Clayton (14) or check down to Eric Edwards (47) or Justin Vincent (25)
3. Reading blitz, go over the top to Skyler Green (5) on a post

CHANGE UP
If at first Matt Mauck doesn't succeed & well, then he's really dangerous. The 24-year-old quarterback spent four seasons as a catcher at the bottom of the Cubs' minor league system, where he could handle a curve unless he had a bat in his hands. His career batting average was .225. He struck out once every three at-bats.

"Football is more mentally challenging," says Mauck. "Make a mistake in baseball, you give up a home run. Make a mistake in football, you get your head knocked off."

Mauck, noggin be damned, finally ditched the diamond and called Nick Saban, who originally signed him out of Jasper, Ind., for Michigan State. At LSU, as a red-shirt freshman in 2001, Mauck replaced an injured Rohan Davey to lead the Tigers to an SEC championship game upset of No.2 Tennessee.

Mauck could throw, but he could also run-and that was part of the problem. He rarely stuck around in the pocket to see what might develop. And in 2002, with LSU at 5-1, Mauck tore ligaments in his right foot and underwent surgery that ended his season.

The injury gave Mauck one more opportunity to learn to play his position. Last spring, when he still hadn't regained all of his mobility, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher ordered him to stay in the pocket. Eventually, Mauck got comfortable with standing his ground, and all season he's proved he can wait out the D and pick out the right option. Mauck led the SEC in passing efficiency (152.2) and threw for 28 TDs, six more than LSU's previous single-season record. So know this about Mauck: he still can't hit a curve, but he's got no problem with a change.

WHY LSU WON 12
With little experience at linebacker or in the secondary, Nick Saban still molded D1-A's stingiest scoring defense (10.8) and second-ranked total defense (259.54 ypg). With zone blitzes and masked coverages, the Tigers' schemes are intricate. But make no mistake: DT Chad Lavalais & Co. can give you an old-fashioned beatdown, too.

WHY LSU LOST 1
Sophomore Skyler Green returned Florida's first punt 80 yards for a score, but that was LSU's highlight of the afternoon. Saban's concerns about the offense finding a rhythm after an off-week were realized and compounded by Florida LB Channing Crowder and friends. The Gators sacked Matt Mauck three times, intercepted him twice and never let LSU inside the Florida 31. Lesson: get to Mauck early, as Florida and Ole Miss did, and he may get rattled.

OUTSIDE CHANCE
By Bruce Feldman

Shut out from the Sugar Bowl, USC now must rely on an unlikely ally-the media.

Pete Carroll spent the second half of the season giving variations on the same reply to any pesky writer who mentioned the possibility of the Trojans being left out of the BCS: "All I know is, if we win, we improve our chances." But with the coaches' vote contractually going to the BCS winner, the fate of Carroll's No. 1-ranked team is in the pens of the group blamed for the Pac-10's lack of national titles-the media. No West Coast team has topped the final writers' poll since the Trojans in 1972.

USC just may overcome that infamous East Coast bias. If it does, it will be behind Carroll's cheery perseverance and the sheer force of the team's numbers. The Trojans almost purged their one loss by breaking 40 points in each of their final seven games on their way to a Pac-10-record 506 and an average winning margin of 27.

This title run has surprised many around the program, who felt USC wouldn't contend until next year. No one knew what to expect in August. Most of the offense's stars, except LT Jacob Rogers and WR Keary Colbert, were underclassmen; QB Matt Leinart looked no better than the four other candidates trying to replace Carson Palmer; and only four seniors were starting on D. The one sure thing was the difficulty of the schedule: eight opponents had earned bowl bids in 2002. So much for sure things. Auburn, Washington, Notre Dame and UCLA tanked and took USC's best BCS chance with them.

Carroll was calm about it this time, but doesn't want to be outside looking in again. So he has an idea: he wants to open next season against the winner of the Sugar Bowl.

BEST CHANCE
Trips Left Tight-Slot Right-X Choice. USC has an offense that gives Mike Williams a lot of flexibility in his route-running. Here, Matt Leinart takes a five-step drop and looks for Williams, who fakes an out and breaks inside.

MATT LEINART's READS

1. Go to Williams (1) unless doubled
2. Read zone, go high-low, first to Steve Smith (2) on corner, then Keary Colbert (83) in flat
3. If D overshifts, go to Gregg Guenther Jr. (44) on backside corner or check to LenDale White (21) on full-speed crossing route

EAST COAST SWING
USC may have found a nice way to co-opt the East Coast bias: Florida-bred playmaker Mike Williams. Heading into his senior year of high school, Williams was thought of as more of a basketball player dabbling in football, which may explain why all three Sunshine State powers whiffed on him. Fact is, USC receivers coach Lane Kiffin knew about Williams only because Kiffin's brother-in-law was Williams' quarterback at Plant HS in Tampa. Williams didn't have gaudy numbers, but when Kiffin and Pete Carroll checked him out, they knew they were onto something special. "He had tremendous athleticism and vision," says Kiffin. Williams dazzled Kiffin and Carroll by catching and making no-look passes on the hardwood.

Wonder how that translates? You get a hint of it every time the 6'5", 230-pound sophomore snares something in traffic, which is whenever something is thrown to him there. Williams has 87 catches for 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and few receivers are better at finding the soft spot in a defense, a huge asset in USC's timing game. A do-it-all target like this is why first-year starter Matt Leinart put up better numbers than Carson Palmer.

Williams already rivals USC's greatest receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, in the stat book-and the quote book. Reviewing his onehanded TD snag against Oregon State (you know, the one that will still be airing on SportsCenter years from now), Williams admitted he could have used both mitts: "I was just trying to have fun." Asked about strength of schedule, he likened some of LSU's games to "sorority pillow fights." Such Sunshine State smack is bound to get the writers' attention.

HOW USC WON 11
With a veteran line, physical receivers, lethal tailbacks and a poised QB, you don't need to be a coaching genius to run the offense. Of course, USC has one of those, too. Coordinator Norm Chow is a big reason soph QB Matt Leinart threw a league-record 35 TDs and freshman RBs LenDale White and Reggie Bush got comfy so quickly.

HOW USC LOST 1
Cal did something Michigan can do: hammer away at USC's front seven with a physical runner. Cal's horse, Adimchinobe Echemandu, a 225-pound between-the-tackles guy, rumbled for 36 yards on the game's second play, and the Trojans were backing up the rest of the night. By the end, they'd surrendered the only 100-yard rushing effort in their last 25 games. UM lost at Oregon when it stopped calling on Chris Perry. They won't do that again.