From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PRESENTS, January 14, 2005
AT THE START OF THE SEASON AUBURN seemed unlikely to go undefeated. Coach Tommy Tuberville was barely clinging to his job after his team had finished a disappointing 7—5 in 2003, the Tigers had question marks on both sides of the ball, and the Plains was abuzz with talk that Tuberville would be fired if the '04 season turned sour. "I had turned in my application at Walmart to become a greeter," the coach would later joke.
Instead a sweet season unfolded. Under new offensive coordinator Al Borges, redshirt senior quarterback Jason Campbell blossomed into a star, completing nearly 70% of his passes and throwing for 20 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Borges also found creative ways to get running backs Carnell (Cadillac) Williams and Ronnie (Hummer) Brown on the field at the same time, interchanging his star runners at tailback, fullback, slotback and even wide receiver. They wound up forming the deadliest one-two combo in the country, combining for 2,078 rushing and 465 receiving yards.
Meanwhile, the Tigers' D—a quick but smallish unit bereft of stars other than All-America cornerback Carlos Rogers—led the country in fewest points surrendered (11.3 per game) and was fifth in total defense (277.6 yards allowed per game). No wonder Tigers defensive coordinator Gene Chizik would be presented with the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach.
Boasting a balanced offense and a swarming defense, the Tigers rolled to the SEC championship game, where they beat Tennessee 38—28 and became the first SEC team to go undefeated since the Volunteers did it in 1998. But largely because of a weak nonconference schedule, Auburn also became the first undefeated team from a major conference to be shut out of the national title game. Those bids went to USC and Oklahoma, while the Tigers were left to play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, where they held on for a 16—13 victory over the Hokies to cap their season.
"It's disappointing," said Tuberville about being left out of the national championship game. "An undefeated season happens once or twice in a lifetime, if you're lucky. But most of the talk has been about polls and rankings rather than what we have accomplished."
It was a season of redemption for Tuberville. Not only did he guide his team to more victories (13) in a season than any other Auburn squad, but after six seasons he also owns the school's highest winning percentage for a coach (68.0%). He has led the Tigers to at least a share of the SEC Western Division title in four of the past five years and to five straight bowl games.
For Auburn the 2004 season was perfect, BCS be damned.