JASON CAMPBELL carefully placed his shiny new Most Outstanding Player trophy on the lower shelf of his locker, then pulled off his number 17 Auburn jersey for the last time. Ninety minutes had passed since the third-ranked Tigers had defeated No. 9 Virginia Tech 16-13 in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night, and it was time for the senior quarterback to get a few more things off his chest. "I know we're national champions," he said. "We're 13-0. We beat four Top 10 teams [more than any other school in the country]. Really, I don't care what anybody says. We're national champions."
In the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, Campbell and coach Tommy Tuberville had been making this argument to anyone and everyone who had a microphone or notepad. The Tigers were the first unbeaten team from one of the six major conferences to be shut out of the BCS title game--hamstrung by a low preseason ranking (17th), which meant they had a lot of ground to make up in the polls, and by a weak nonconference schedule, which hurt them in the computer rankings--and they knew their chance for a share of the national championship was slim.
The USA Today/ ESPN coaches poll is obligated to name the winner of the BCS title game as its champion, but voters in the AP poll had the option to declare a victorious Auburn No. 1 in its final ranking. "There are two national championship games," Tuberville insisted on the eve of the Sugar Bowl. "There's one here at the Sugar Bowl, and there's another one at the Orange Bowl." Yet it figured that for AP voters to catapult the Tigers from third to first, Auburn would have to hammer the Hokies ruthlessly, and No. 1 USC and No. 2 Oklahoma would have to stink up the Orange Bowl the next night.
Less than five minutes into the third quarter the Tigers were giving AP voters something to think about. They had just taken the second-half kickoff and marched 78 yards in eight plays to score the first touchdown of the game, a five-yard pass from Campbell to wide receiver Devin Aromashodu for a 16-0 lead. Still, Tuberville nervously paced the sideline, arms folded, knowing he needed more points--scoreboard points and style points--for a shot at a split title.
It didn't happen. With 6:58 to play in the game Virginia Tech scored on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Bryan Randall to receiver Josh Morgan. Then, with just more than two minutes remaining, Randall hooked up with Morgan again on an 80yard scoring bomb. Auburn recovered the ensuing onside-kick attempt and burned out the clock, but a blowout victory--what the Tigers desperately needed--was not to be.
"I believe they're one of the best two teams in the country," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer after the game, adding that he was a "company man" and would place the Orange Bowl winner No. 1 on his ballot. Early on Wednesday morning Auburn indeed wound up No. 2 behind USC in both polls. The Tigers thus became the first team from a major conference since Penn State in 1994 to finish with a perfect record but without at least a share of the national title.
It was a historic season nonetheless for Auburn, which went 13-0 for the first time. In the process Campbell took his place among the best quarterbacks to ever pass through the Plains. His record as a starter is 31-9 (including 15 straight wins to close out his career), and his 64.5% completion mark is third-best in SEC history. Against the Hokies his passing statistics were typically efficient: 11 of 16, 189 yards, one touchdown, one interception, one outstanding player trophy.
"We did everything we were asked to do," said Campbell as he mingled with Tigers fans outside the Superdome afterwards. "I'd love to play one more game, but at least we were able to make a statement tonight." To the everlasting chagrin of Auburn fans, that statement wasn't enough. -- Lars Anderson