As Jason Campbell celebrated on the Georgia Dome turf following Auburn's 38-28 SEC championship game victory over Tennessee, the Tigers faithful in the lower deck began chanting, "Ja-son, Ja-son." Upon seeing them, Campbell ran to the stands and began high-fiving fans--many of them the same ones who used to call for his head.
Capping a remarkable senior year in which the formerly erratic quarterback blossomed into one of the nation's top passers, Campbell completed 27 of 35 for three touchdowns and a career-high 374 yards as the Tigers took their first SEC title since 1989 and secured the first 12-0 regular season in school history. Still, that wasn't enough to push Auburn ahead of USC or Oklahoma in the final BCS standings, and it left the Tigers to face Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. "We deserve a shot," said Campbell. "It's hard to go undefeated in the SEC, beat three Top 10 teams [LSU, Tennessee and Georgia] and beat Tennessee twice."
Going into the game the third-ranked Tigers had the slim hope that if they beat the 9-2 Vols convincingly and Oklahoma struggled against Colorado, voters in the AP and coaches' polls would move Auburn ahead of the Sooners, compensating for its poor standing in the BCS's computer polls. While the Tigers' offense turned in another powerful performance, racking up 559 yards, an interception of a Campbell pass in the end zone just before halftime and a fumble at his own 19 early in the third quarter helped the Vols get back in the game, and the Tigers' normally impenetrable defense allowed runs of 80 and 54 yards to Gerald Riggs. Campbell's two second-half TD throws, of 53 and 43 yards, proved to be the difference against Tennessee, but not enough for the BCS.
New Orleans may not be Auburn's preferred destination, but the season has been richly rewarding for a group of seniors ( Campbell, running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, cornerback Carlos Rogers) who endured two five-loss seasons. No one endured more than Campbell, the primary scapegoat for Auburn's offensive woes earlier in his career. Under offensive coordinator Al Borges, Campbell finished third in the nation in passing efficiency. "I tell all my players, if you do what Jason did and learn from adversity," said coach Tommy Tuberville, "you'll do well in life." Thanks to the BCS, the Tigers have learned one other important lesson: Life isn't always fair.