U.S.C. Still Controls Its Fate in One Poll December 10, 2003 By BILL FINLEY The fate of Southern California, still hoping for a piece of the national football championship, depends on how it fares in the Rose Bowl against Michigan on Jan. 1 and the mood of the 65 writers and broadcasters who vote in the Associated Press poll. The Trojans should worry about Michigan, among the hotter teams in the country. It appears that they need not overly concern themselves with the voters. The New York Times contacted 23 of the 42 Associated Press voters who placed the Trojans on top in their latest ballots, and while some were equivocal, the results suggest that should Southern Cal defeat Michigan it would remain on top in the A.P. poll. That would mean a split national championship, with Southern Cal earning the title in the journalists' poll, and the winner of the Sugar Bowl, which will pair Louisiana State and Oklahoma, capturing the mandated top spot in the coaches' poll. Eight of the A.P. voters contacted by telephone or e-mail said that if Southern Cal were to beat Michigan, there was virtually no chance they would change their vote. Eight more said they were likely or very likely to place U.S.C. at the top spot on their ballots. Seven others said they would keep an open mind, possibly shifting their vote to the winner of the Sugar Bowl, and would consider the decisiveness of the two games. None of the voters contacted voiced any sense of obligation to vote for the Sugar Bowl winner simply because it would win the Bowl Championship Series. Though the survey was admittedly unscientific, it indicated that Southern Cal controls its own destiny in the A.P. poll. "Nothing is ever absolute in these things, but I cannot imagine any scenario in which I would not vote U.S.C. No. 1 after winning the Rose Bowl," said one of the voters, Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. "Michigan is a very strong opponent at this point - possibly stronger than L.S.U. or Oklahoma, despite the two early losses - and style points are insignificant in a game like that." Another voter, Mike Kern of The Philadelphia Daily News, voiced a similar view. "Yes, if U.S.C. wins, I will almost certainly vote the Trojans No. 1 in the final poll," he said. "Why would I move them down after I put them there this past week? If L.S.U. beats Oklahoma, is that any better than U.S.C. beating Michigan? I don't think so." With other voters apparently sharing the sentiments of Layden and Kern, a U.S.C. victory in the Rose Bowl could very well create the situation the Bowl Championship Series was intended to prevent. With Oklahoma, Southern Cal and Louisiana State all having lost just once, no consensus has developed on which teams deserve to play in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. The Bowl Championship Series designated the Sugar Bowl for its top two teams, in this case Oklahoma and Louisiana State. By prior arrangement, the winner of that game will be declared the national champion in the ESPN/USA Today poll of coaches. After last weekend's games, Southern Cal slipped to No. 3 in the Bowl Championship Series ranking, even though it placed first in both polls. Southern Cal did not fare as well with the computers as it did with the voters in either poll. Some voters in the A.P. poll, like Adam Gold of WRBZ-AM in Raleigh, N.C., say little separates the three teams. They are waiting to see what unfolds. "It really depends on the way the Rose Bowl goes and the way the Sugar Bowl goes," Gold said. "I don't leave a team No. 1 just because they won. Every week, they have to prove it to me. There's no difference between Southern Cal, Oklahoma and L.S.U. In terms of what they've proven, they're pretty equal. I have a 100 percent open mind." The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the current situation is a mess and that there must be a better way. "For years, you had coaches, fans, athletic directors, everybody, ripping the system that we had and in particular ripping the writers," Jack Bogaczyk of The Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia said. "They said we didn't know what we were doing and shouldn't decide a national championship. "My feeling is, why should computers decide a national championship? If Southern Cal wins their game, the coaches will have to turn around and change their vote after putting Southern Cal at No. 1. Then that's the poll that's a sham, not the A.P. poll."