OF COURSE IT had to end this way.

In a season that started with Appalachian State 3 months ago, how could it not?

The rules stipulate that two teams must play for the national championship. Nobody said getting there has to make that much sense. Or, for that matter, any at all.

So for better or worse, America will get top-ranked Ohio State (11-1) and No. 2 Louisiana State (11-2) in New Orleans on Jan. 7. You don't think those final Bowl Championship Series standings could possibly get this stuff wrong, do you?

It was the matchup most figured we'd get, heading into the homestretch. It merely took a circuitous route to make that a reality.

Ohio State was No. 1 3 weeks ago, before it lost at home to Illinois and dropped to seventh. LSU was No. 1 last week, before it lost at home to Arkansas in three overtimes and fell to seventh. By then, naturally, OSU already had moved back up to third.

On Saturday, the top two teams went down. It happens, in this instance, for the second consecutive week and third time in 2 months. It had never happened before in the closing weekend of the BCS era.

Missouri (11-2) was victimized by Oklahoma (11-2) in the Big 12 final, by 21. West Virginia (10-2) couldn't survive four-touchdown underdog Pittsburgh (5-7), at home. Don't ask. It's the sixth time this year that No. 2 has lost to an unranked opponent, which obviously is impossible.

Not.

The turn of events left folks from Norman to Athens pondering which two-loss team should proceed directly to Bourbon Street. Which is precisely what the people who run college football want. On ESPN, each coach with a vested interest in the outcome phoned in to state his team's case. You can't make this up.

Turns out, it wasn't close. Ohio State - first in both the media (Harris Interactive) and coaches (USA Today) polls and third in computer average - finished with a BCS average of .9588. LSU, which was second across the board after beating Tennessee (9-4) in the SEC final, was next at .9394. Virginia Tech (11-2), which beat Boston College (10-3) in the ACC final, jumped from sixth to third (.8703). The Hokies were first with the computers, but sixth (Harris) and fifth (USA Today) with the voters. Interesting.

Oklahoma went from ninth to fourth (.8572). Georgia (10-2), which didn't make it to the SEC final, went from fourth to fifth (.8392). And Southern California (10-2) only went from eighth to seventh (.7637) by beating UCLA.

The only certainty about this system: You can't appease every precinct.

"I'd like to thank . . . those people responsible," said LSU coach Les Miles, who said he's not heading to Michigan as had been widely speculated (even reported). "We're humbled by this selection."

"The only thing I didn't really like now is, the rules don't state that you have to be a conference champion [to play for the title]," Georgia coach Mark Richt countered. "It seemed like the media made the decision to automatically disqualify us, and [thus] didn't look at the merit of our season.

"If they're not going to put it in the rules, it's not really a fair chance."

(Nebraska made it to the championship game in 2001 despite not playing in the Big 12 final; it lost to Miami.)

Richt voted Ohio State first, Georgia second and LSU third. The Bulldogs were fourth in both polls, and tied with Oklahoma for sixth in the computers.

Did we mention that Hawaii (12-0) rallied from way back to beat visiting Washington (4-9) and secure a bid to the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 at the Louisiana Superdome against Georgia? We can only hope it's half as great as Boise State-Oklahoma was in last January's Fiesta Bowl.

But back to the only matchup that counts. The first nine BCS title games have produced nine different winners. It won't be 10-for-10. Ohio State beat Miami following the 2002 season. The next year LSU beat Oklahoma. The Buckeyes made it to last January's game, as the favorite, but were crushed by Florida.

They started this season ranked 11th. LSU was second, behind USC. Now the Buckeyes will get another shot at an SEC champ, this time as an underdog. The game's just an hour or so drive from Baton Rouge, as was the case 4 seasons ago.

The teams have met twice, in 1987 and '88. The first one was at LSU, with both ranked in the top 10. They tied, 13-all. The Buckeyes won the rematch, 36-33, in Columbus.

No two-loss team has ever played for a ring.

The Tigers will be without their defensive coordinator, Bo Pelini, who's departing to become the head guy at Nebraska.

The Buckeyes are the third team to play in this game three times, joining Florida State (1998-'99-2000) and Oklahoma (2000-'03-'04).

As for the rest of the BCS games, Illinois (9-3) will get USC in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. It's the Illini's first trip to Pasadena in 23 years, after winning seven more games than it did a year ago. It's USC's sixth straight trip to a BCS bowl.

In the Fiesta, on Jan. 2, Oklahoma drew West Virginia. Not sure what that does for anyone.

In the Orange, on Jan. 3, Virginia Tech plays Kansas (11-1), which lost its regular-season finale (and the Big 12 North title) to Missouri. It's the first time the Jayhawks have been to a January bowl since 1968, when they lost to Penn State in the Orange. But it does make you wonder why they're going and Misssouri's not, since Missouri's only crime was playing Oklahoma twice. Whatever.

The Tigers are instead going to the Cotton, to play Arkansas (8-4). Still, it's their first New Year's Day appearance since 1969, when they also lost to Penn State in the Orange.

Some felt that maybe Arizona State (10-2) might go to the Fiesta for the first time since 1983, but they were wrong. The Sun Devils instead are in the Holiday Bowl against Texas (9-3).

It's been one nutty ride. Ohio State and LSU got late reprieves. Somebody had to. Some years, or even most, it's an imperfect process. So maybe it was only fitting that it deteriorated into a free-for-all.

Division I-AA will hold its semifinals in 5 days.

By all means feel free to trash away. *