- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Auburn has come too far to give up hope.

So, on the eve of tonight’s Sugar Bowl, coach Tommy Tuberville made a familiar pitch: The third-ranked Tigers deserve at least a share of the national title if they beat No.9 Virginia Tech.

“There are two national championship games,” Tuberville said. “There’s one here at the Sugar Bowl, and there’s another one at the Orange Bowl.”

Never mind that it’s No.1 Southern Cal vs. No.2 Oklahoma in the Orange — and the winner of tomorrow night’s game is assured of being voted BCS national champion in the coaches’ poll.

Auburn’s hopes are based on an unlikely scenario: The Tigers rout Virginia Tech, Oklahoma beats USC in an ugly game and enough writers in the Associated Press media poll opt to put Auburn ahead of the Sooners on their final ballots.

This being college football — where champions are decided by human opinion and computer-generated rankings, not one of those wacky playoff systems that every other sport uses — the Tigers sounded like a candidate in the waning days of a political campaign: “Vote Auburn! This team earned your support by going 12-0 in the SEC, including two victories over Cotton Bowl winner Tennessee. Surely an impressive performance against the Hokies — who opened the season with a hard-fought loss to Southern Cal — would be enough to sway at least some of the pollsters.”

Said Tuberville: “Obviously, we feel like there’s one more vote. We’ll be auditioning.”

Overlooked in this whole process is Virginia Tech (10-2), which must feel like a Ford Pinto on display at a classic car show.

The Hokies have heard all the talk about poor Auburn. But a Virginia Tech victory would vindicate the Bowl Championship Series and allow the Orange Bowl to be played without a shred of controversy.

“Nobody’s really giving us a chance,” defensive end Noland Burchette said. “Nobody really expected us to do anything this year. Every commentator, every news reporter I see, they think it’s going to be a blowout. We’ll see.”

Not that anyone on the Auburn side has done anything to denigrate the Hokies. If anything, the Tigers have gone out of their way portray Virginia Tech as being just as good as those teams that made it to Miami.

All part of the political process.

“They probably should have beaten USC,” Auburn center Jeremy Ingle said. “If not for some phantom interference call” — a disputed penalty against the Hokies — “they’d probably be undefeated right now. Then, we’d all be talking about us, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma.”

The Hokies’ other loss, 17-16 to N.C. State, would have gone the other way if Brandon Pace’s 43-yard field goal attempt on the final play had been a couple of feet to the left.

But Virginia Tech, playing its first season in the ACC, bounced back to win its last eight games and a most satisfying league championship.

The Hokies had been spurned for years by the ACC, and they weren’t going to receive an invitation to join this time until top state officials intervened.

The Sugar Bowl opponents have plenty of similarities: all-star quarterbacks (Auburn’s Jason Campbell and Virginia Tech’s Bryan Randall), a pair of top running backs (Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown for the Tigers, Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes representing the Hokies) and two of the stingiest defenses in the country (Auburn ranks first nationally at 11.2 points a game, Virginia Tech is third at 12.6).

Most striking, both teams bounced back from disappointing seasons a year ago. Virginia Tech was third in the AP rankings after a 6-0 start, only to lose five of its last seven games. Auburn also went 8-5 after being touted as a national championship contender, nearly costing Tuberville his job.

“I had already filled out my application at Wal-Mart to be a greeter,” Tuberville said yesterday, managing to joke about the ordeal. “I was done.”

Of course, no one at Auburn is laughing about the current predicament — a 12-0 team that finds itself shut out of the reputed national championship game.

Some players don’t even plan to watch the Orange Bowl. Others wish they could be in Miami, just to see for themselves if USC and Oklahoma truly are the two best teams in the country.

“What do those teams have that we don’t have?” linebacker Travis Williams asked. “I would like to see firsthand why people think they’re better than we are.”

While there’s nothing that can be done this season, Ingle and some of his teammates are bitter about the continued resistance to a playoff system. Despite the possibility of another disputed champion, the position of university presidents and many coaches makes it clear that nothing will be done other than some minor tweaking.

“They need to clean all this mess up,” Ingle said. “This game is about the players. It’s not about the officials and administrators.”

Certainly, Auburn wants to do its part to keep the controversy raging.

“If we lose this game, everyone will say, ‘See, we told you. USC and Oklahoma were the best teams,’” Ingle said. “If we do good, win by 20 or 30 points, and Oklahoma and USC play to a zero-zero tie, maybe there’s a chance we’ll win it.”

Not much of a chance, but at least the Tigers can hope.

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