At precisely 5:03 CST on Jan. 3, Tuberville stepped out of the first team bus to park outside the Superdome. More than 5,000 Tigers fans formed two lines that snaked from the buses to the locker room. Tuberville led his team through the Tiger Walk and whipped the crowd into a full-throated frenzy by waving his arms in the air and yelling, "Let's go! Let's go!" As he made his way through the crush of fans, Tuberville spotted his silver-haired mother, Olive, in the crowd and gently planted a kiss on her cheek. Campbell was close behind, slowly nodding his head and wearing the intense look on his face of someone about to rumble in a street brawl. "It's as focused as I've ever been," Campbell would later say.
The Tigers won the coin toss but deferred receiving until the second half. As Auburn kicker Philip Yost set the ball on the tee for the opening kick, the crowd of 77,349 rose, buzzing with excitement. National title or not, the fans were pumped.
Virginia Tech got one first down on its initial possession but then was forced to punt. On Auburn's first offensive play, with the ball on the Tigers' 26-yard line, Campbell dropped back and drilled a strike to tight end Cooper Wallace, who was running a post route over the middle, for a 35-yard gain. On the next play Brown took a handoff and ripped off 31 more yards. Two plays, 66 yards. This was the kind of electric start Auburn was hoping for, though, alas, the drive stalled on the Tech six and the Tigers had to settle for a John Vaughn 23-yard field goal. This marked the 10th time in 13 games that Auburn had scored on its initial possession.
The next big play was made by the Tigers' defense. Hokies quarterback Bryan Randall, facing third-and-23 from his own 38-yard line with 6� minutes left in the first quarter, rifled a dart 26 yards downfield in the direction of flanker Eddie Royal. But Auburn safety Junior Rosegreen picked off the pass and returned it 32 yards to the Tech 30. Seven plays later Vaughn kicked a 19-yard field goal. Up to this point Auburn had outgained Virginia Tech 96 yards to minus-6, but the scoreboard read only 6-0. The Tigers needed an artistic win to make their national championship case, yet so far the brush strokes on the canvas were just good, not great.
"After our first two possessions I felt like we were in total control," Campbell said afterward. "We were having our way with them, but we just couldn't get into the end zone."
After an exchange of punts, Tech put together its best drive of the game, moving from its own 24 to the Auburn one-foot line, where the Hokies faced fourth-and-one with 8:11 left in the second quarter. A critical moment had arrived; a touchdown and extra point would give Tech the lead, but a defensive stop by the Tigers could cause a major shift in the game's momentum. Randall called the count, then faked a handoff to tailback Mike Imoh. Fullback Jesse Allen had slipped into the right flat of the end zone and, momentarily, he flashed open. But Randall's pass was slightly behind Allen. The ball skipped off his hands and he watched helplessly as it fell to the turf. "It touched my hands," Allen said. "When that happens, you're supposed to catch it."
"I thought that was key to the game, when we stopped them on the goal line," said Tuberville. "Defense wins championships."
Tuberville knew he still needed more points--scoreboard points and style points--if he were to have a shot at earning a share of the national title. Auburn got another field goal in the second quarter from Vaughn to increase its lead at halftime to 9-0. In the locker room Tuberville coolly told his players that they'd remember the last 30 minutes of this game for the rest of their lives. "We've got one more half together," Tuberville said. "Now let's go out and win this game." Left unspoken was that these 30 minutes would also be the Tigers' last chance to drum up votes. It was understood by all: They needed to lay some serious wood to the Hokies.
Less than five minutes into the third quarter, the Tigers seemed to be on their way to doing just that. They had 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. They were up 16-0. Yet Tuberville nervously kept pacing the sideline, arms folded, still sensing that he needed more: more stops on defense, more big plays on special teams, more touchdowns on offense.
Then came a break for the Tigers: Early in the fourth quarter Tech kicker Brandon Pace missed a 23-yard field goal attempt wide left. When Auburn got the ball back, offensive coordinator Al Borges started hammering the ball between the tackles, bleeding time off the clock and breaking the spirit of the Hokies. Eight rushes in nine plays produced 30 yards. Facing a third-and-one on the Tech 38, Williams busted through the teeth of the Hokies' defense for the yard. But just before his knee hit the ground, the ball popped loose and Tech's Mikal Baaqee recovered it at the 28-yard line.