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A bottle of Gatorade in his left hand and the Sugar Bowl's Most Outstanding Player trophy in his right, Jason Camp-bell strode through a darkened concrete corridor in the Superdome, camera bulbs popping in his face every few seconds. He was on his way to the Auburn locker room, where the rest of his teammates had already celebrated, showered and dressed. But now Campbell's progress was being slowed by one approaching well-wisher after the next, all throwing love--and autograph requests--in the fifth-year senior's direction.
"You're a national champion in my book!" yelled another man who was clad in orange and blue.
Campbell finally made his way into the locker room, which was littered with pads, sweat-soaked T-shirts and plastic bottles. He sat down on a chair, carefully placed his shiny new MOP trophy on the lower shelf of his locker, let out a deep breath, then pulled off his Auburn jersey for the last time in his college career. As he sat in the quiet of the nearly vacant room, Campbell got a few more things off his chest. "I know we're national champions," Campbell 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."
Indeed, Campbell and his teammates made a compelling case that they deserved at least a share of the national title. Consider: Auburn is only the 11th team in Division I-A history--and the first in school history--to finish 13-0 or better. The Tigers beat five teams that had at least nine wins. Their defense led the nation in fewest points surrendered (11.3 per game), their offense featured Campbell (the SEC player of the year) and two first-team All-SEC running backs (Carnell [Cadillac] Williams and Ronnie [Hummer] Brown), and their coach, Tommy Tuberville, was named the Associated Press National Coach of the Year. Yes, Auburn was a nearly flawless team. And yet that wasn't enough to grab a portion of the national title. Two days after the Tigers beat the Hokies, the ACC champs, in the Sugar Bowl, the AP ranked Auburn second in its final poll, behind Orange Bowl winner and BCS champion Southern Cal. It was the most egregious snub in a decade, as the Tigers became the first team from a major conference since Penn State in 1994 to finish the season with a perfect record and not at least share the national title.
Even before the Sugar Bowl kicked off, Tuberville and the rest of the Tigers had spent days proclaiming to the assembled media that they were worthy of at least a slice of the national title should they conquer Virginia Tech. Auburn--hamstrung by a weak nonconference schedule and low preseason ranking (17th)--knew its chance for a share of the title was slim. The USA Today- ESPN coaches poll is contractually obligated to name the winner of the BCS title game as its champion, but voters in the AP poll had the option of declaring Auburn No. 1 in the final rankings. Yet the only hope that Tuberville & Co. had of persuading AP voters to catapult the Tigers from No. 3 to No. 1 would be to hammer the Hokies. "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."
"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Tigers center Jeremy Ingle before the game. "[For voters] to go out there and say USC and Oklahoma are the best teams in the country, I think that's ridiculous. I don't see it. I watched them play. I think they're good teams, but how can you not put us in that category?"
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer certainly thought that Auburn belonged in the Orange Bowl. On Aug. 28 the Hokies lost to USC 24-13 in the season-opening BCA Football Classic in Landover, Md. Though Tech entered the game unranked, the Hokies held a 10-7 lead over the top-ranked Trojans at halftime. Early in the third quarter Virginia Tech was driving for a score when flanker Josh Hyman was called for offensive pass interference, which wiped out a first down at the USC 12. Hyman didn't appear to have touched the Trojans defender, and the phantom interference call (as Hokies fans now refer to it) shifted the momentum of the game. USC went on to mount a comeback behind two long touchdown passes from Matt Leinart to Reggie Bush, but the game was much closer than the final score indicated. Having played the Trojans put Beamer in a unique position of being able to compare USC with Auburn, and in the hours leading to the Sugar Bowl he was steadfast in his belief that the Tigers were superior to the Men of Troy.
"Overall, I believe that this Auburn team deserves to be Number 1," Beamer said the day before the game. "And that's no slight to USC, either. I think they're right in there close together.... I think this Auburn team is a better team overall than USC."