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SPLIT DECISION CURRENT USC SCENARIO PLAYING OUT SIMILAR TO THAT OF 25 YEARS AGO, WHEN TROJANS SHARED NATIONAL TITLE.

Byline: Rich Hammond Staff Writer

A preseason top-10 ranking, followed by an early victory in Alabama against a highly regarded team, a shocking conference defeat, stirring victories over UCLA and Notre Dame, a Rose Bowl against Michigan and a national-championship controversy.

USC's 2003 season? Yes, but also 1978, in a series of eerie parallels.

It's been 25 years since USC's eighth, and most recent, national title, and it's assumed that if these Trojans win the Rose Bowl, they will claim the Associated Press national title, whereas the winner of the LSU-Oklahoma Sugar Bowl is certain to claim the BCS title.

``There are definitely some interesting similarities there,'' said Brad Budde, an All-American and Lombardi Trophy winner as a gu Trojans from 1976 to 1979.

The 1978 team beat Alabama in September, but three weeks later suffered a stunning 20-7 loss to Arizona State that dropped the Trojans behind Alabama in both polls.

USC entered the Rose Bowl ranked No. 3, but after the Trojans' 17-10 victory over No. 5 Michigan, and No. 2 Alabama's 14-7 victory over No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the AP awarded its title to Alabama and the coaches jumped USC over Alabama by a narrow margin in the United Press International poll. It was a scenario only a BCS computer could love.

``We felt that if we won that game, we deserved to be national champions,'' said John Jackson, a USC assistant coach 1976-81. ``I'm sure those boys down in Alabama thought the same thing, but we both had legitimate claims to the national title.

``The only thing is, we beat Alabama, so it was hard to believe they could be ranked ahead of us, be we were champions and nobody could take that away from us.''

Coach Pete Carroll's team could take notice.

The 2003 Trojans opened the season with a shutout of Auburn and reached No. 3 in both polls before they were dumped by California in triple overtime, then rebounded with eight consecutive victories to claim the AP's No. 1 spot going into the Rose Bowl.

Already there is debate about who would be considered the ``true'' national champion if USC beats Michigan. A split doesn't satisfy anyone, and Budde admits to a certain disappointment at having to share the 1978 title with the Crimson Tide.

``When you're 18 to 22, you have a tendency to look at life differently than when you're 40 to 45,'' Budde said. ``Back then it was, 'What's up, how can we share this when we already beat them on the field?'

``But as you get older and life has its way with you and you develop a sense of humility before honor, an appreciation sets in and you start to think about all the talented players and teams that never even got the same chance that we did.''

A glance at the 1978 roster assumes those Trojans were expected to dominate.

Besides Budde, names such as Ronnie Lott, Charles White, Anthony Munoz, Pat Howell, Dennis Johnson, Paul McDonald, Keith Van Horne, Roy Foster and a freshman running back named Marcus Allen jump out, even more so in hindsight.

``If you look back, it was a very talented team,'' USC historian Mike Glenn said. ``They only gave up 153 points (in 13 games) and they should have won the national championship outright, there's no question.''

But USC started 1978 ranked No. 9, after an 8-4 season in 1977, and jumped to No. 3 with victories over Texas Tech, Oregon and top-ranked Alabama, a 24-14 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 77,313 at Legion Field in Birmingham. White ran for 199 yards.

Then came disaster, a 20-7 road loss in USC's first meeting with Arizona State.

``Our center was hurt,'' Jackson said, ``and we didn't have anybody to back him up. Every time we completed a successful snap, it was a cause for celebration.''

USC's national title hopes seemed grim, much as they did after this season's Cal game, but those Trojans responded with seven consecutive victories and beat Notre Dame 27-25 on Frank Jordan's 37-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.

In the Rose Bowl, the Trojans were shut out in the second half, but the decisive touchdown came in the second quarter on White's 3-yard dive. Whether White had control of the ball when he crossed the goal line is a matter of eternal debate.

``We always stayed focused,'' Budde said. ``During that time at USC, you went there because of the Rose Bowl and the possibility of national titles. It wasn't something you dreamed about because you actually believed in it, every season.''

The Arizona State defeat would be the Trojans' only loss until Nov. 15, 1980, a 28-game unbeaten streak that included two ties.

Yet perhaps because of the dominance of the undefeated 1972 championship team, the 1978 team has a tendency to get overlooked. Team members even point to the 1979 team, which went 11-0-1 and won the Rose Bowl, as potentially better than 1978.

``Coach (John) Robinson and I have ... discussions, I guess you could say, about this all the time,'' former assistant coach Craig Fertig said. ``I take '72 and he takes '78.''

Budde said he simply finds it ``nice to be remembered'' after 25 years and sees similarities with this year's team, beyond the obvious.

``When I think of that '78 team, the first thing that comes to my mind is Marv Goux,'' Budde said, referring to the late USC assistant coach (1957-82). ``He represented so much of what has come back under coach Carroll, particularly the great leadership and a true, reckless abandonment when it comes to his love for the game.

``It's contagious, and it's good to see that back at USC.''

Rich Hammond, (818) 713-3611

rich.hammond(at)dailynews.com

USC vs. Michigan

Jan. 1 at 1:30 p.m.

TV: Ch. 7

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Every day this the week the Daily News looks back at past Rose Bowl clashes featuring USC and Michigan.

1978

Trojans roll Tide, but split title

This sounds familiar - USC wins a share of the national title with a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

This USC team is stocked with future NFL players - Marcus Allen, Charles White, Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith, Anthony Munoz, Paul McDonald, Keith Van Horne - and finishes No. 1 in the coaches poll. But the Trojans finish No. 2 in the AP poll behind Alabama, the same Crimson Tide team USC beat 24-14 in the third game of the season.

White, who goes on to win the Heisman Trophy, rushes for 1,859 yards in his junior season, and McDonald ties a conference record with 19 touchdown passes. The team's only blemish is a 20-7 loss at Arizona State in the fifth game of the year.

USC LOG (12-1)

USC 17, Texas Tech 9

USC 37, Oregon 10

USC 24, Alabama 14

USC 30, Michigan State 9

Arizona State 20, USC 7

USC 38, Oregon State 7

USC 42, California 17

USC 13, Stanford 7

USC 28, Washington 10

USC 17, UCLA 10

USC 27, Notre Dame 25

USC 21, Hawaii 5

USC 17, Michigan 10

Coach: John Robinson

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- 3) Coach John Robinson, top left, says USC's national-championship team of 1978, led by Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, top right, and quarterback Paul McDonald, above, might have been the best Trojans team of all time.

(4 -- 5) The 1978 team that finished 12-1 after defeating Michigan in the Rose Bowl included two future NFL Hall of Famers: offensive lineman Anthony Munoz, above, and defensive back Ronnie Lott, left.

Photos provided

Box:

(1) HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE (see text)

(2) BOWL GLANCE
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Dec 23, 2003
Words:1284
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