- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

ATLANTA — No. 3 Auburn might have won the SEC Championship last night. But the Tigers sure didn’t win any voters.

Needing a dominating victory over 15th-ranked Tennessee to impress poll voters and improve its outsider status in the BCS standings, the Tigers posted a pedestrian 38-28 victory over the hobbled Volunteers.

The victory completed a perfect regular season for the Tigers (12-0) and earned them their first SEC title since 1989. But, Auburn had grander goals in mind — like a trip to Miami for the Orange Bowl on Jan.4 and a shot at the national title.

That shot won’t be forthcoming.

To have any chance of passing No.2 Oklahoma in the BCS standings that will determine the Orange Bowl competitors, Auburn needed a crushing victory over the Vols (9-3) and an ugly performance from the Sooners in the Big 12 title game.

They got neither.

While Oklahoma was busy euthanizing Colorado in Kansas City, the Tigers were struggling in Atlanta with an injury-weakened team they decimated 34-10 two months ago in Knoxville.

“We didn’t play at all today, but we’re still the best team,” said Auburn All-American cornerback Carlos Rogers. “We think we’re the best team in the nation. And if [members of the Associated Press and coaches’ polls] don’t vote us into the Orange Bowl, we’ll go wherever they send us and play our hearts out.”

After last night’s spotty showing, the BCS will be sending Auburn to the Sugar Bowl. It’s not as if Auburn was awful, but on a night when they needed to be spectacular (or at least considerably better than Oklahoma), the Tigers were merely average.

The stats will show Auburn put up 559 total yards of offense against the Vols and responded to a second-half Tennessee charge with 17 points in the game’s final 18 minutes. They will show that senior quarterback Jason Campbell threw for a career-high 374 yards and three touchdowns, answering both of Tennessee’s stretch-run scores with long scoring strikes of his own.

When Tennessee tied the score 21-21 midway through the third quarter, Campbell answered with a 53-yard bolt to Devin Aromashodu. And when the Vols trimmed the lead to 31-28 early in the fourth quarter, Campbell struck deep again, connecting with Ben Obomanu for a 42-yard score down the left sideline with 6:56 left for the final touchdown.

But the Tigers also allowed a Tennessee team without two quarterbacks, its best offensive lineman and two starters in the secondary to stay in the game.

They allowed Tennessee junior tailback Gerald Riggs to rush for a career-high 182 yards on just 11 carries, production that dwarfed the combined efforts of Auburn’s ballyhooed tandem of Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (100 yards) and Ronnie Brown (50 yards).

They allowed themselves to lose their composure and focus, failing to land a knockout blow on a Tennessee team they had reeling just eight minutes into the game.

And they were unusually sloppy for a team predicated on precision, committing three turnovers and breaking down against Riggs and the Tennessee running game in the second half. Simply put, the Tigers’ Orange Bowl argument was built on their 18.9-point margin of victory over SEC opponents and their dominating play in big games. This time they simply were not dominating enough.

“Give credit to Tennessee. We thought we could knock them out, and we just couldn’t do it,” said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who wasn’t going to allow BCS gloom to overwhelm the school’s SEC celebration. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow with the BCS. I do know we’ll get at least one first-place vote.

“This is just too sweet to worry about that. This is a special team we’ve got. And this night has been 15 long years coming for our fans and our school.”

The proceedings started hopefully enough for the Tigers, who experienced more resistance running through the tunnel than they got from the Vols on their first two drives.

Auburn took the opening kickoff and waltzed 86 yards in 10 plays and less than two minutes for a 7-0 lead. Campbell did most of the damage with his arm as the Tigers used NFL-bound seniors Williams and Brown as decoys, allowing Campbell to repeatedly burn the Vols on play-action passes.

After a three-and-out series from a Tennessee team strapped with third-string quarterback Rick Clausen, Campbell and Co. resumed their clinic on offensive efficiency, cruising 66 yards on nine plays to take a 14-0 lead when Williams scooted around left end and bulled to the pylon.

But faced with such laughable opposition on its first two drives, the Tigers seemed to ease up a bit midway through the opening quarter. The drop in intensity proved costly as Auburn finished the half with ludicrously dominant statistics (303 yards of total offense and 17 first downs to only 39 yards and two first downs) but only a 21-7 lead.

Auburn gifted Tennessee its only score of the half when punter Kody Bliss had a snap sail through his hands and was forced to dive on the ball at his own 14. The miscue set up a four-play Tennessee touchdown drive consummated by senior tailback Cedric Houston and was a harbinger of sloppy play to come from Auburn.

With a chance to virtually ice the game in the first half and woo a few more poll votes away from No.1 Southern California and No.2 Oklahoma, the Tigers began to self-destruct. Campbell was intercepted in the end zone on the half’s final play when the somewhat greedy Tigers elected not to kick a short field goal and take a 24-7 lead.

Campbell fumbled on the Tigers’ first possession after the half, giving the Vols a 19-yard field they immediately turned into points on a diving touchdown catch by Robert Meachem.

After the suddenly inspired Vols then stuffed Auburn on its next possession, Riggs cemented the mini-comeback and likely doomed Auburn’s slim Orange Bowl hopes. The son of the former NFL standout burst through the line and sprinted 80 yards untouched to tie the game 21-21 with 6:05 remaining in the third quarter.

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