The concept of a college football "national championship game" came into existence in the early 1990s, with the Bowl Coalition making the first attempt. But it didn't gain traction or some semblance of credibility until the formation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998.
(Yeah, credibility and BCS in the same sentence. We said it.)
The timing was ideal. In 1997, the final year before the BCS era, there was yet another split national championship. Michigan, No. 1 in both the AP and coaches polls, won the Rose Bowl and claimed the AP title. But Nebraska, second in both polls at the end of the regular season, leapfrogged the Wolverines in the coaches poll after an Orange Bowl win, thanks to some last-minute sympathy votes for coach Tom Osborne, who announced his retirement just before the game.
The BCS was supposed to take care of this problem. With all six major conferences signed on to match up the top two ranked teams at the end of each regular season, there would be no more doubt who'd be the undisputed national champion in college football.
Or so they thought. Who knew it'd be so hard to pick who's No. 2?
In the 14 years of the BCS national championship game, just twice (2002 and 2005) have there been games between the only unbeaten teams. This problem has been perpetuated by the quirky formula of the BCS standings, a mathematical disaster originally developed by former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer. The formula has undergone at least three major facelifts, yet the problem persists partly because striking a balance between human polls and computer rankings have proved elusive.
Organizers of the BCS had a chance to find a way to remedy this issue three years ago, when now-SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed a plus-one system, which essentially would create two semifinal games and expand the pool of teams playing for the BCS title. But it was rejected by a majority of the other commissioners.
It has worked out just fine for Slive and the SEC, which has won the last five BCS titles, with a sixth consecutive guaranteed as this season's game will be contested between two SEC West foes, LSU and Alabama. The SEC has been able to ride its unparalleled success in the BCS era to stake a claim as the best conference in college football.
Here's a quick look at the key moments in the history of the BCS championships:
Best Game: The 2005 national championship, played at the Rose Bowl, must be considered one of the greatest games of all time, period. It featured two-time defending national champion USC, on a 34-game winning streak, and No. 2 Texas, also unbeaten and having won the Rose Bowl the previous year. USC stormed back in the second half and built a seemingly insurmountable 12-point lead in the fourth quarter. A fourth-and-2 conversion in Texas territory with two minutes to go would've sealed the three-peat. But the Longhorns stuffed LenDale White; then Vince Young drove them to the winning score with 19 seconds left in the game. The 41-38 victory by Texas remains the most-watched college football game in the BCS era.
Worst Game: Ohio State was the undisputed No. 1 team heading into the 2006 championship game, having held off No. 2 Michigan in a "Game of the Century." Florida squeezed into the title game thanks to last-minute defections by voters who didn't want to see an Ohio State-Michigan rematch. But it was the Buckeyes who proved to be overmatched in the championship game. After Ted Ginn Jr. ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Ohio State was outscored 41-7 the rest of the way. Senior Chris Leak quarterbacked the Gators to the blowout win, but a freshman named Tim Tebow would account for two touchdowns and take Florida back to the title game two years later.
Best Performance: The NCAA says this game never happened, but the 2004 championship game at the Orange Bowl showcased the most dominating performance by a team and a player in a BCS title game. In USC's 55-19 rout of Oklahoma, quarterback Matt Leinart, the newly minted Heisman winner, completed 18 of 35 passes for 332 yards and five touchdowns, including three to wide receiver Steve Smith. The Trojans raced out to a 38-10 halftime lead and turned the rest of the game into coronation march. USC's defense also completely stifled the Sooners, forcing five turnovers and holding Heisman runnerup Adrian Peterson to just 82 yards on 25 carries.
Biggest Controversy: Never mind No. 2, in 2003, it was the No. 1 team that didn't belong in the game. The 2003 season produced the first, and so far, only, split national titles in the BCS era. Ranked No. 1 in both the AP and coaches polls after the regular season, USC was excluded from the title game when Hawaii and Notre Dame lost on the final day of the season. Instead, LSU faced Oklahoma, a team that was routed in the Big 12 title game by Kansas State, 35-7, yet stayed No. 1 in all the computer rankings as well as the final BCS standings. LSU would win the Sugar Bowl in an lackluster 21-14 affair and was guaranteed the title in the coaches poll per BCS rules. But USC was the runaway choice for No. 1 in the AP poll after beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The BCS standings underwent a drastic makeover after the season, with the formula unaltered ever since.
Prediction for the 2012 Game: Les Miles, not Nick Saban, is the best big-game coach in college football. His record proves it: He's 5-1 in six bowl games at LSU, with five blowout wins and a narrow loss to Penn State. In contrast, Saban is only 6-3 in bowl games at LSU and Alabama, with losses to Utah and Iowa, and some unimpressive wins despite overwhelming talent advantage. Taking a cue from their coach, the Tigers will play this game with a chip on their shoulder, and more than validate their victory in the first meeting. LSU takes this one going away, 31-14.