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Stewart Mandel inside.c.football

Odd team out

In a season filled with perfection, Auburn picked wrong time to go 12-0

Posted: Sunday December 5, 2004 12:57AM; Updated: Sunday December 5, 2004 2:30AM
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  Stanley McClover
Stanley McClover squeezes an orange after Auburn's 38-28 win over Tennessee in the SEC title game, but the Tigers' Orange Bowl dreams are probably wishful thinking.
AP

ATLANTA -- Auburn fans waited 15 years to celebrate an SEC championship. If only it had come a year sooner -- or a year later, or any other year for that matter -- they'd probably have even more to celebrate come Sunday evening.

"It will probably never happen again," Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville said of the now-inevitable reality that an undefeated SEC team will be left out of the national title game. "It will be my luck."

Never before has a championship-clinching victory like Auburn's 38-28 SEC title win over Tennessee on Saturday been so bittersweet. Never has an undefeated record in a major conference meant so little. And the most frustrating part for the Tigers is there really isn't anything they could have done differently -- other than choose a different year than the first one in which the top two teams in the preseason, USC and Oklahoma, didn't lose either.

"This year is an awkward year," said Tigers receiver Ben Obamanu, "for three teams to go undefeated like they did."

Auburn players had heard all week that they needed to do more than just win the football game Saturday, that they needed to do something dramatic, that they needed to "make a statement." And they started out doing just that, with quarterback Jason Campbell, on the first play of what would become a career night, completing a 53-yard pass to receiver Courtney Taylor, and Auburn going up 7-0 just 1:36 into the contest. By halftime, the Tigers had outgained the Vols by a staggering margin of 303 yards to 39.

A botched punt snap and a Campbell interception in the end zone just before halftime, however, left them with an uninspiring 21-7 lead at the break. Not exactly the kind of "wow" factor needed to win over the pollsters.

What sliver of hope Auburn still held in the national title picture went out the window for good a little before 9 p.m. EST Saturday, when Tennessee running back Gerald Riggs raced 80 yards untouched to the Georgia Dome end zone to tie the score at 21-21. At the very same moment that a seemingly overmatched Tennessee team was fighting back against the Tigers, Oklahoma was going up 21-0 on a hapless Colorado team en route to a thoroughly dominating 42-3 victory. Forget the Orange Bowl -- Auburn was going to have to work just to reach the Sugar.

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In the thrilling second half that followed, Campbell, who would finish with a staggering 431 yards of offense, including 27-of-35 passing, hit wide-open Devin Aromashodu over the top for a 53-yard touchdown to reclaim the lead. The Tigers would tack on another field goal after that. Not to be outdone, though, Riggs, who would finish with a career-high 182 yards on just 11 carries, ripped off another dazzling run of 54 yards, then scored from 9 yards out to cut the deficit to 31-28.

Not until Campbell's 43-yard touchdown to Obamanu with 6:56 remaining was Auburn's first SEC championship since 1989 in the bag. And it was far too close a victory when the team above them, Oklahoma, was hoding its opponent to 43 yards offense and two first downs the entire game. Gotta love the BCS.

The Tigers lingered on the field long afterward, soaking up the atmosphere. Campbell waved the Auburn flag and ran along the front row of the stands high-fiving spectators. Tuberville sported a smile from ear to ear.

Unfortunately, the Tigers' celebration will probably last less than 24 hours. Sometime Sunday afternoon, BCS officials will phone the folks at Auburn with the news they've been dreading: Their team has become the first unbeaten major-conference team in the BCS era to be left out of the title game. But not before some furious, last-second lobbying.

"The difference in our conference and the other conferences is defense -- every team in our league has defensive players," said Tuberville. "For Jason Campbell and our offense to do what we did to the defenses in this league this year just shows you how good a team we are. We're a well-balanced team that hasn't taken a week off all year."

"The hostile atmospheres when you play on the road in this league are incomparable," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive. "If you can go through that [undefeated] and win this game, you deserve to be in the national championship game."

"Oklahoma, they didn't play anybody but Texas," said safety Junior Rosegreen, sporting an Orange Bowl patch on a chain around his neck. "If Arkansas is the sixth-best team in the SEC, and they almost beat Texas, that shows you how good the SEC is."

Valid points, all of them. But they will fall on deaf ears.

You can argue until the end of time about USC's 21-game winning streak, Oklahoma's big road wins, Auburn's weak non-conference schedule. One reason trumps all others why the Trojans and Sooners will meet Jan. 4 as No. 1 and No. 2: Because they started there.

Perhaps that's why, despite relentless prodding from reporters afterward, Tigers players found it hard to dwell too much on the negative. They choose to focus instead on what they did accomplish this season, not only winning an SEC championship but becoming the first team in school history to win 12 games. They seem to be at peace with the fact their undesirable BCS fate is something entirely out of their control, not to mention frustratingly flukish.

"If we get shut out of the national championship," said Campbell, "of course there will be hurt feelings. But you can't take away what we accomplished this year."

"If they don't vote us in," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, "we'll be ready to play whoever."

Pity whoever that is. Here's guessing by the time the Sugar Bowl rolls around, after the high of Saturday night's victory has long since worn off and after they've endured three weeks of buildup for USC-Oklahoma, those hurt feelings will have transformed into some pretty serious anger.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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