Jan. 01, 2005
SportsLine.com wire reports

NEW ORLEANS -- Poor Auburn.

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A 12-0 record and SEC title would be enough to make the Tigers a front-runner for the national title most years -- or at least cause a spirited debate about who's No. 1.

But this isn't most years.

While Southern California and Oklahoma prepare for their Orange Bowl matchup that probably will decide an undisputed national title, Auburn can only watch like the envious kid with his nose pressed up against the glass. No matter what the Tigers do in Monday night's Sugar Bowl, they have little, if any chance, of being No. 1.

"To be honest with you, it gives us more motivation," running back Carnell Williams said. "Everybody's mad, disappointed, hurt. But why should we stop here and let that be a setback? Why not go out on Jan. 3 and try to show people that the system is whacked? They messed up. We are the best team."

If this scenario sounds familiar, well, it is. Only No. 3 Auburn's plight is even more pitiful than top-ranked Southern California's being left out of the Bowl Championship Series title game last year.

The Trojans at least had the hope of splitting the national title because they were No. 1 in both polls, and that's exactly what happened. Southern California kept its No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, while LSU won the BCS crown.

"If it happens we're fortunate enough to win, perhaps some other poll might decide we deserve to be No. 1," said Ed Richardson, the interim president at Auburn.

But Auburn is behind No. 1 Southern California and No. 2 Oklahoma, who have identical 12-0 records. Even if Auburn beats No. 9 Virginia Tech (10-2) in one of those laughers normally reserved for nonconference foes, the Tigers are unlikely to leapfrog the Orange Bowl winner or be anything other than the answer to a trivia question.

No team from a major conference has gone unbeaten without getting at least a share of the national title since Penn State in 1994. The Nittany Lions were 12-0 then and won the Rose Bowl, but Nebraska was 13-0 and a consensus champ.

"This is all mythical," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "When you don't have a playoff of four, eight or 16 teams, it's picked by other people. We think we're the best team in the country, and we've played like it so far most of the time this year. But again, that's for other people to decide."

The BCS tweaked its formula this year in hopes of avoiding messes just like this, emphasizing the human polls over computers. But as Auburn and Utah and California found out, the polls aren't foolproof, either.

While Southern California and Oklahoma have been the national title favorites all year, Auburn was way down at No. 17 in the preseason poll. That's a lot of ground to make up, and the Tigers had little hope of doing it when USC and Oklahoma kept winning.

"This is a perfect example of how we need to wait until Oct. 1 or Oct. 15 before we do those polls, because it's just a fact that things change," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who votes in the coaches poll. "We started off with Southern Cal one, Oklahoma two and Auburn three. About five or six weeks from the end, I just thought Auburn was playing the best football. That's no slight to Oklahoma, but I had Southern Cal one, Auburn two and Oklahoma three."

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Auburn climbed as high as a tie for second with Oklahoma in the Nov. 14 AP poll, but dropped back to third the following week. Even a victory over then-No. 15 Tennessee -- the Tigers' second of the year -- in the SEC championship game couldn't give them the boost they needed.

"Our preseason ranking hurt us because we had to climb so high to get ourselves in that situation," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "If we had started in the top five or top 10, I feel like we probably would be playing in the national championship game.

"It hurt, because that's something we've fought for all year," Campbell added. "I felt like people had questions, and we went out there and answered all the questions."

And then some.

No offense to USC and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart or to Oklahoma, playing for its second national title in five years, but Auburn might be the best story in college football this year. Certainly no one's overcome more than the Tigers to get where they are.

A soap opera writer couldn't have scripted Auburn's 2003 season. The Tigers didn't come close to meeting their lofty expectations, and a small cabal of university leaders embarrassed themselves and the school and humiliated Tuberville with their bungled attempt to push the coach out.

In a rare display of decorum in athletics, Tuberville refused to fire back at his detractors. That class struck a chord with his players, and they credit the turmoil for bringing them even closer. Williams, fellow running back Ronnie Brown and cornerback Carlos Rogers decided to put the NFL on hold and return for their senior seasons.

"I was always taught you have to go through the storm to get to the other side," receiver Courtney Taylor said. "We done weathered the storm."

That this could be a special season became clear in the third game, when the Tigers rallied to beat then-No. 5 LSU 10-9 on a touchdown with 1:14 left. They rolled from there, winning all but one of their games by double digits. Their 12-0 record is the best in Auburn history, and their SEC title was the school's first since 1989.

"We really have done something special this year by going 12-0 so far," offensive tackle Marcus McNeill said. "We want to end up this perfect season and go down as one of Auburn's greatest teams."

And the Tigers will have to be content with that. Because this year, perfect isn't quite good enough.