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The College Football Playoff (of 2004)

Remember when Auburn, USC, Oklahoma and Texas played a four-team playoff to settle the 2004 national championship? No? Well, here's how it went down.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk about the four-team playoff to determine college football's national champion. Not the one for 2014, but for 2004.

I know you're familiar with what the government wants you to believe—that USC beat Oklahoma in the BCS championship game. But newly uncovered documents—provided to me by the guy who talks about aliens on H2—reveal the truth. The Bowl Championship Series of 2004 was an elaborately orchestrated hoax, carried out to satisfy contractual requirements.

Here's what really happened.

In early November 2004 Tommy Tuberville proposed a four-team playoff to determine the national champion. The commissioners of the SEC, Pac-10, Big XII and ACC agreed to organize a four-team playoff featuring their conference champions, to be conducted in secret so as not to jeopardize their lucrative relationships with ESPN.

The commissioners quickly learned that organizing games without the resources usually afforded them can be tricky, but by the time the conference champions were determined they seemed to have it all worked out, and wrote up instructions to be secretly communicated to the participating teams.

When the ACC commissioner saw the instructions for Virginia Tech, he became very confused. He told the other commissioners there was no ACC champion yet, but he was pretty sure it would be Duke. The SEC commissioner responded, "You do know this is for football, right?" The ACC commissioner apologized for the misunderstanding and politely forfeited his conference's spot in the playoff.

The Big XII commissioner then suggested Texas, who was fourth in the BCS standings, as the replacement, and the SEC and Pac-10 guys didn't argue.

But soon there was plenty of arguing. The commissioners had projected the conference champions a couple weeks in advance and made all the logistical arrangements based on the expected participants. Once Virginia Tech was out and Texas was in, things became complicated. The plan had been to have USC play Virginia Tech in the first semi-final in Dallas, but that would be essentially a home game for the new four-seed, Texas.

The Big XII guy argued there was no such thing as home field advantage in a secret playoff that no one was allowed to attend. But Pac-10 alleged Big XII had known about ACC thinking the playoff was for basketball, and it had all been part of his plan to set up an all-Big XII final.

The arguing went on for a week, and while SEC was trying to find new venues that would make everyone happy, the secret arrangements for the previously secured venues fell apart.

Suddenly, the playoff had nowhere to be played.

Take It Inside

Just when it seemed the playoff might not happen at all, the Pac-10 commissioner made a suggestion. He proposed the teams play arena football, thus greatly expanding the venues that could be considered. Big XII was immediately intrigued because he thought arena football favored the style of play of both Oklahoma and Texas. The SEC guy just sat back and wondered if this was really happening.

Then, in a move everyone should have found suspicious, Pac-10 suggested the semi-finals and final be played in the American Airlines Center in Dallas. He claimed to have connections with the facility management, and could arrange for all the Dallas Desperados arena football infrastructure to be set up and taken down in consecutive weeks, even amid the other events at the venue.

Now Big XII was really on board, as his plan for an all-Big XII final had its home-field advantage restored. What he didn't know was that the Pac-10 commissioner knew that several USC players had secretly played for the San Jose Sabercats in the Summer of 2004, making them intimately familiar with the arena game.


Finally the day came for the first semi-final. USC was ready. They were very ready. Texas was not. The Trojans won 98–36. The game took forever. Tuberville later said, "I wasn't there, because the game wasn't actually played, but if it had been, and had I been there, I would've fallen asleep and dreamed about duck hunting; about Byron's Smokehouse being in Arkansas, close to my hunting camp."

In the second semi-final Auburn kicked a field goal on its first possession, and hung on to beat Oklahoma 3–0. Tuberville: "It's the most perfect game I ever coached. Even better than our 3–2 win over Mississippi State that hasn't happened yet. If I ever coach in the CFL, I'm gonna have Damon Duval get us a single on the opening kickoff and see if we can win 1–0."

The Championship

USC felt pretty good coming into the championship game. Who can blame them? All the skill players had won ArenaBowl XVIII with the Sabercats just a few months prior. Furthermore, they had scored 98 points in their semi-final to Auburn's 3.

What they didn't anticipate was Tuberville's signature stroke of genius. Al Borges has reportedly taken credit for the idea, but I haven't been able to confirm that, or anything else in this story. When Auburn took the field for its first possession against the Trojans, Jason Campbell stayed on the sideline.

Under center was Carnell Williams. Turns out Cadillac's halfback passes against Wisconsin in 2003 and against Georgia in 2004 were mere glimpses of his true quarterbacking prowess. USC, of course, was bumfoozled, as they had prepared to defend against Campbell, who did not enter the game until the final play, when he lined up at fullback, and came out of the backfield to receive a pitch from Courtney Taylor on a hook-and-ladder play, and ran another 30 yards for a touchdown. Auburn wins, 78–74.

The Aftermath

The ACC guy somehow found out the score of the championship game and concluded it must have been a basketball tournament after all. He got real sore about it and threatened to tell the press. When the other commissioners couldn't explain to him what arena football was and that they had played it to determine the 2004 national champion, the SEC guy made a regrettable promise—that if the ACC ever met the SEC in the BCS championship game, the SEC representative would build a big enough lead to show they were the better team, and then throw the game.

Josh Dowdy is a College & Mag contributor. He also writes about Auburn sports and the Auburn Family at