Top-ranked Ohio State enters the BCS national championship game against LSU searching for redemption, hoping to bury the memories of an embarrassing loss in last year’s title game.
"As much as you try to forget about it, there’s no way of forgetting about it," Ohio State fullback Dionte Johnson said. "I can close my eyes and go through that game like I’m still there."
The second-ranked Tigers come into tonight’s showdown at the Superdome looking for validation, trying to prove they were indeed the team most deserving of a chance to play the Buckeyes for the title.
"I really feel it was our destiny to be here," LSU receiver Early Doucet said. "For things to go the way they went — us losing to Arkansas, Pittsburgh beating West Virginia and Oklahoma beating Missouri — it all fell into place the way it did and I just think it was meant to be."
That’s a good theory. How else to explain how two teams that lost their second-to-last games are playing for the national championship?
The winner will become the first school to win two BCS titles since the Bowl Championship Series began in 1998. The Buckeyes won it in 2002, then lost 41-14 to Florida as a prohibitive favorite in last year’s championship game.
LSU won the BCS title in 2003, beating Oklahoma right here in New Orleans, the Tigers’ home 90 miles south of Baton Rouge.
Ohio State (11-1), the Big Ten champions, and LSU (11-2), champs of the Southeastern Conference, have been two of the nation’s elite programs over the past six seasons; the Buckeyes have won 66 games and the Tigers 63.
Yet, there’s been little talk about dynasties or a place in history going into this championship game.
The winner will get a crystal football and the title of BCS national champion, but the debate over which team is truly the best in the country will continue, especially by fans of Southern California and Georgia.
There’s even been speculation about voters in The Associated Press poll choosing one of those other teams as No. 1 after the Buckeyes and Tigers are through. That, however, seems unlikely.
For Ohio State, getting to this point was a surprise on two levels. The Buckeyes started the season ranked 11th, not even considered the best team in the Big Ten.
"We knew we had to step up because we lost so much star power," said Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman, who passed for 2,171 yards and 23 touchdowns as Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith’s replacement.
Led by a stingy defense and a steady offense, powered by bullish running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, the Buckeyes rose to No. 1.
Then Ohio State lost 28-21 to Illinois in November and appeared to be out of the national title race. A string of upsets and surprising results put the Buckeyes back on top, though the skeptics — and there are still plenty — also returned.
None of Ohio State’s opponents were ranked in the top 20 when the Buckeyes played them this season. After last year’s sad showing against the Gators, Ohio State and the Big Ten took a bashing. The Buckeyes were labeled too slow to keep up with the sleek SEC teams.
"I’m not buying that," Doucet said.
Still, the record does show Ohio State is 0-8 in bowl games against SEC teams.
The Buckeyes say they’ve learned from last year’s debacle. That they’re more focused. They arrived in New Orleans less than a week before the game and have mostly hunkered down in their hotel instead of bopping around Bourbon Street.
"Last year players were enjoying themselves a little too much," All-America linebacker James Laurinaitis said.
Laurinaitis, defensive end Vernon Gholston and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins anchor the nation’s No. 1 defense, which yields only 11 points and 225 yards per game.
"I watched a lot of film on them and they are a big, fast and tough defense and they can really play well together," LSU quarterback Matt Flynn said.
When they started the season ranked No. 2, Flynn and the Tigers were squarely among the favorites to reach this game .
How LSU got here, though, was anything but routine. The Tigers are the first team with two losses to play in the BCS title game.
"This team went through some highs and lows and a lot of drama," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Miles was a leading man in the LSU’s dramatic season, taking some gutsy chances on the field and being publicly courted by Michigan off it.
LSU twice lost when it was ranked No. 1, both times in triple overtime. When the Tigers dropped their second game at home against Arkansas, a shot at the national title seemed lost.
One last wild weekend in an unpredictable college football season gave the Tigers a third chance to be No. 1.
The Tigers say they’re healthier than they’ve been in months. The defense, which was one of the best in the country early in the season, wasn’t as dominant down the stretch when All-America tackle Glenn Dorsey was hampered by knee and tailbone injuries. Flynn missed two games, including the SEC championship, with ankle and shoulder injuries. A groin injury took Doucet out of five games.
With Flynn back at full strength, LSU expects to go back to the two-quarterback system — with Ryan Perrilloux occasionally relieving the starter — that helped the Tigers average 39 points per game.
A potent offense against a dominant defense. Two storied programs meeting for the first time in 20 years.
For all the BCS championship game has to offer, it still almost sounded as if Miles was reminding everyone at his final news conference Sunday that the winner will be crowned national champion.
"I couldn’t think of a better way to end the college season than 1 playing 2 for the right to be 1," he said.
Redemption or validation will be nice, too.