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What if USC faced LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl?

USC was left out of the BCS Championship game during the 2003-04 season. However, what if USC and LSU faced-off in that 2004 Sugar Bowl Game?

Rose Bowl: Michigan v USC Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Sports are at a complete stand still due to the COVID-19 outbreak. College spring sports and spring football are canceled while all of the NFL draft preparations have been limited to distant scouting. With everything on pause right now and USC not seeing the field for the foreseeable future, let’s take a look back at one of the seasons that put USC back on the national scale.

USC was coming off a top 5 finish and winning the Orange Bowl handedly, however, coming into the 2003 season they had to replace their Heisman trophy winning quarterback in Carson Palmer and replace All-American safety Troy Polamalu. Pete Carroll named redshirt sophomore Matt Leinart the starting quarterback going into their week 1 road game vs Auburn. From there the rest was history. The Trojans would end the 2003 regular season with an 11-1 record, ranking No. 1 in the AP and Coaches, and winning sole possession of the Pac-10 Championship. With Kansas State blowing out Oklahoma in the Big-12 Championship game, it appeared that USC would have a shot at winning their first national championship since 1978.

The BCS rankings had other ideas. The computer rankings dropped USC to No. 3 while Oklahoma and LSU played for the BCS title. The Trojans played then No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl game where they would defeat the Wolverines 28-14. LSU defeated Oklahoma 21-14 days later in the Sugar Bowl to claim the BCS title. The AP Poll would award USC the national title, giving the college football world their first split national championship since 1997.

LSU v Oklahoma
Despite losing the Big-12 Championship Game on the final day of the regular season, Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in the final BCS Poll of the regular season while LSU leaped to No. 2. USC played in the Rose Bowl Game despite being ranked No. 1 in the Coaches and AP Polls.

To this date, there has been debates on what would’ve happened if the BCS gave everyone the USC/LSU match up in New Orleans that year. While it didn’t happen in real life, computer simulations have thankfully given us the opportunity to give us some insight on what could’ve possibly happened. Thanks to What If Sports Simulation, we set up a fantasy matchup between Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers and Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans at the Sugar Bowl.

The Trojans would enter as the No. 1 ranked team in the BCS with LSU being No. 2 thanks to the Oklahoma loss (In this version Oklahoma would become BCS At Large team and make their second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl Game.). Without a doubt it would've been a “home game” for LSU with the game being in New Orleans. If you know Pete Carroll led USC teams, it didn’t matter who or where they played.

FedEx Orange Bowl - USC vs Oklahoma - January 4, 2005
Pete Carroll leads USC back to national glory with a victory over LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl. Capturing the program’s first national title since 1978.
Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images

LSU running back Justin Vincent started things off with a 56 yard run to put LSU up 7-0. USC would strike back to not things up thanks to a Leinart to Steve Smith connection. The second quarter would be all Tigers thanks to a 10-0 run. The LSU defense held USC’s offense in check for the whole second quarter, flustering Leinart. The Tigers took a 17-7 lead into halftime.

You know you can’t count the Trojans out of the ball game just yet. LSU on the other hand wasn’t winning to give it up. The third quarter brought another 7-7 score between the two, giving the Tigers a 24-14 lead headed into the fourth quarter. From there USC relied on a big 14-3 scoring run, which was was capped off by Leinart finding wide receiver Kerry Colbert for a 15 yard touchdown score at the 2:41 mark, to give them their first lead of the game. A Ryan Killeen field goal would increase the Trojans lead at 31-27, however with 11 seconds left it was all but done. USC would complete a fourth quarter comeback to capture the BCS National Championship in New Orleans.

Box Score

Kerry Colbert would be named the Sugar Bowl MVP while Pete Carroll hoists the crystal ball trophy and return the USC football program back to national glory.

All we can do is speculate and rely on video games and computer simulation to play out games like this. In the end both USC and LSU captured a national championship that season, exceeding expectations of many. For LSU, they would win one more BCS title in 2007 under Les Miles. USC on the other hand? The 2003 season, would be the launch pad to a Trojan dynasty that would last from 2002-2008 and feature two national championships, multiple BCS bowl games, two Heisman trophy winners in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, and 7 conference championships.