NEW ORLEANS (AP) -The winner of Monday night's BCS national championship game between Ohio State and LSU will be able to challenge Southern California for the title of best college football program in the country right now.
Both the Buckeyes and Tigers have won BCS national title games in the last six years. Ohio State upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the 2002 championship and LSU knocked off Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to take the 2003 BCS title. The Tigers shared the national championship that season as Southern California finished No. 1 in The Associated Press poll.
USC won the national title outright the following season by beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and came up just short of an unprecedented third consecutive championship, losing to Texas and Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
Since 2002, USC has won 70 games. Ohio State has 66 victories and LSU has 63, coming into Monday night's game. Over the past three seasons, Ohio State's .892 winnings percentage going into the LSU game was the best in the country, ahead of USC (.872), West Virginia (.868) and the Tigers (.847).
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel wasn't about to get into discussions about pre-eminent programs the day before the Buckeyes played in their second consecutive national title game.
Over the past three seasons
``You're only as pre-eminent as your next game,'' Tressel said. ``And I don't know that we can make proclamations like that, because I don't know how you define that.''
LSU coach Les Miles took the question about team of the decade as an opportunity to send a subtle message out to recruits.
``I can tell you, being in position to play in this game is something everybody in college football wants to be in,'' Miles said. ``And I think it's obvious to say that certainly USC, Ohio State and LSU can say that if you want to play for a national championship, then there's some advantage to those three locations.''
CAPTAIN SMITH: This time, Will Smith stood side-by-side with the ``visiting team'' in the Louisiana Superdome.
Technically, the BCS national championship was held at a neutral site. From a practical standpoint, it was more like a home game for LSU, which is a 90-minute drive away, not to mention that New Orleans is home to countless LSU graduates and even more Tigers fans.
Smith, a defensive end for the New Orleans Saints, played for the Ohio State squad that won a national title in the 2002 season. He accepted an invitation to be an honorary captain for the Buckeyes against LSU.
Smith said he was proud to see how the city is slowly being rebuilt after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina 2 1/2 years ago.
``Unfortunately we had to go through it, but just to see all the positive people, seeing all the outside people coming in trying to do as much as they can to help the city rebuild itself has been great,'' he said. ``Just as long as we can keep it going and get this city back to where it used to be.''
HOT TICKETS: When two flagship state universities with storied college football programs and enormous fan bases meet for a national championship, the demand for tickets is obviously high.
How high?
First, the Louisiana Superdome's 74,000 seats for Monday night's game between Ohio State and LSU sold out immediately, as expected. Then, many of those who had tickets began to offer them at online ticket exchange sites, and there were tons of takers.
The online ticket broker said the BCS championship game surpassed last year's Super Bowl as the top-selling event in the Web site's history, based on dollar volume.
Meanwhile, statistics on the Web site backed up the notion LSU will have a larger share of fans at the game, being played at the Superdome, just a 90-minute drive from the LSU campus in Baton Rouge.
The site said 37 percent of ticket buyers were from Louisiana, while 13 percent were from Ohio. Meanwhile, 12 percent from Texas, where many Louisiana natives have moved during consolidation of the oil industry and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Following Sunday's sales, StubHub said the average price of a ticket purchased on the site was $1,395. As of early Monday afternoon, the lowest price for tickets was $640 apiece for seats in the top deck behind the end zone.
Since tickets for the game began selling on the site, the most expensive purchased were club sideline seats that sold for $4,300 apiece, while the cheapest were third deck end zone seats for $475 apiece.
UP NEXT: Ohio State and LSU face tough tests next September.
Ohio State takes on USC in Los Angeles on Sept. 13 after opening against Youngstown State and Ohio University.
The Buckeyes also visit Wisconsin and Illinois, and they play Penn State and Michigan at home.
After three nonconference home games, LSU opens the SEC schedule at Auburn. It's the first of three tough road trips in a four-week span, along with games at Florida and South Carolina.
The Tigers get Georgia and Alabama at home, and the Nov. 8 game against the Crimson Tide will mark the return of Nick Saban to Baton Rouge for the first time since he left for the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
GOOD EXCUSE: All across Ohio on Monday, thousands of people used up sick days or exhausted an early vacation day - some to travel to New Orleans, some to gear up for the game on TV - to watch their Buckeyes against LSU in the national championship game.
``Some of our people are definitely using their time off for the game,'' said Liz Christopher, a spokeswoman for Nationwide Insurance, one of Columbus' major employers.
Government meetings throughout the state were postponed or shortened. Some colleges canceled night classes. Ohio State students started winter quarter Monday - with many of them in the Louisiana Superdome or on Bourbon Street, not in classrooms in Columbus.
A downtown Columbus movie theater showed the game for free on a 65-foot screen. Many downtown lunchtime restaurants that usually close early stayed open late to offer takeout.
And bars geared up for a booming night.
There was a parking ban on both sides of three campus-area streets until 4 a.m. Tuesday to keep clear the areas where vehicles have been damaged after previous Ohio State football games.
HEFTY BONUS: According to the contract he signed on June 30, 2006, Tressel receives a $200,000 bonus for getting the Buckeyes into a No. 1 vs. No. 2 Bowl Championship Series game. That figure swells his annual salary to about $2.5 million, not counting academic and graduate-rate bonuses.
The interesting part of the contract includes this clause: ``If coach participates in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 BCS bowl game during the term of this agreement and wins such game, coach and the university agree to begin negotiating, in good faith, the terms for a new employment agreement.''
In other words, should the Buckeyes beat LSU, Tressel and his lawyer or agent may just be giving athletic director Gene Smith a call to request a new contract.
BUCKEYE BUZZ: An estimated 15,000 fans - almost every single one dressed in scarlet and/or gray - crowded into the New Orleans Convention Center on Sunday for a Buckeye Bash pep rally.
Even with a 40-minute delay from the scheduled 3 p.m. start, the place was buzzing. The huge monitors on the back of the stage showed film clips from Ohio State glories of the past, with the biggest cheers saved for clips of the Buckeyes winning the 2002 national championship.
Two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, president and CEO of the sponsoring Ohio State Alumni Association, opened by saying that this year's Buckeyes have overcome obstacles all year long and ``I have no doubt, no doubt at all, we'll overcome another one tomorrow night in the Superdome.''
Mayors Michael Coleman of Columbus and Ray Nagin of New Orleans were introduced, with Coleman presenting his counterpart with an Ohio State hat. Pressured to put it on, Nagin said, ``You know you just got me into big trouble.''
Nagin urged the fans to eat lots of food and spend lots of money in New Orleans, then grinned as he added, ``Before you leave, don't forget to pay your city of New Orleans taxes at Harrah's Casino.''
Coach Jim Tressel told the fans they were important players in the game on Monday night and then added, ``Curfew tonight is 11 p.m. You have to get some rest.''

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