Thursday, December 2, 2004

‘Tis the season to spin.

With one final weekend and three monster games remaining before college football’s Decision 2004, this season’s three unbeaten Orange Bowl suitors are making one last BCS sales pitch to poll voters. And though nothing is likely to influence voters more than tomorrow’s final auditions, there are some awfully intriguing games taking place off the field.

As you might expect, the most ardent campaigning is coming from No.3 Auburn (11-0), the SEC giant trailing top-ranked Southern California (11-0) and No.2 Oklahoma (11-0) in both the polls and the BCS standings that will determine the matchup for this season’s national title game Jan.4 at the Orange Bowl.

The Tigers, who meet No.15 Tennessee (9-2) tomorrow in the SEC Championship in Atlanta, trail the Sooners by just seven points in the coaches’ poll and by just 10 points in the AP rankings. Not even Ken Jennings could wade through the mathematical hypotheticals of the BCS formula, but most Sagarin types agree Auburn will need to pass Oklahoma in both polls to have a chance of vaulting past it in the BCS standings.

With 126 coaches and media types to seduce, everybody on the Plains has turned to politicking.

“Everybody will have an opportunity during the day or night to watch all three teams play and look at the scores to make an honest and fair decision about who are the best two teams,” said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, referring to the pivotal TV triple-header of USC at UCLA (4:30p.m.), Auburn vs. Tennessee (6p.m.) and Oklahoma vs. Colorado (8p.m.).

“I don’t think there is any doubt that a lot of people are watching this weekend and might change their vote. We can give our argument about why we should be there. With a win this week we will have beaten four teams who have won nine games, which has not been done yet.”

Tuberville rates high marks for his use of the Jedi mind trick: “You will be open to changing your votes.” However, his less subtle lapse into quoting stats of superiority (four victories over nine-win teams) reminds us of the guileless approach of Auburn associate media relations director Kirk Sampson.

Earlier this week, Sampson sent a list of Auburn statistical superlatives to every AP voter via batch e-mail. It is, after all, important to know that the Tigers have won 17 consecutive games in which they have scored first. Talk about the stat that says No.1. If you want to know Auburn’s record in rainy November night games vs. schools from three-syllable states, Kirk’s your man.

But of course, actions speed louder than words.

“I would love to put up 50 or 60 points on Tennessee to impress the polls,” said diplomacy-challenged tailback Carnell “Cadillac” Williams earlier this week.

Said Auburn wideout Courtney Taylor, who sounds like a candidate for the next casting call for “The Sopranos”: “I will be very, very angry at the system and very disappointed in the voters if we go 12-0 and don’t get a shot at the national title.”

Even Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett, who riled Auburn players and fans with his dismissive comments after Auburn’s 34-10 thrashing of the Volunteers at Neyland Stadium earlier this season, has taken the Tigers’ side in the latest, greatest BCS debate.

“If they go 12-0, how can anyone not vote them No.1?” asked Burnett. “This is the SEC, man, the toughest conference in America. How can you disrespect the biggest bully on the baddest block?”

Problem is, folks west of the Mississippi aren’t making such SEC-centric assumptions. And though the Sooners and Trojans are operating with less urgency, they also are doing their share of stumping.

One of the lingering knocks against Oklahoma is its performance in the final two games last season, when it went from being mentioned in the same breath with the 1972 USC behemoths to being labeled the Sooner sham after losses to Kansas State (35-7) and LSU (21-14).

That first crushing loss, in last season’s Big 12 title game, slapped off Bob Stoops’ coaching halo and, most would argue, was the defining game of the 2003 season. But not according to Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph, who is trying to put the verbal David Copperfield on last season’s collapse in Kansas City.

“Everybody should forget that game,” Joseph said. “It was a fluke. We were already in the title game, and we had nothing to play for. If you want to see something, watch Saturday night when we have everything to play for.”

Even USC, which has an Orange Bowl spot virtually locked up barring a loss, isn’t above last-minute politicking. Lest his Trojans be overlooked tomorrow because of the Auburn-Oklahoma debate, coach Pete Carroll wants the world to know just how tough a test his Trojans face in UCLA.

“UCLA is a good football team,” Carroll said. “Just ask Oregon, ask Stanford and ask the other teams they knocked off and really handled. They have put together an extraordinarily good offense.”

What Carroll doesn’t tell you is that the key cog in that offense, tailback Maurice Drew, is doubtful for tomorrow’s game with a severe ankle sprain. He also doesn’t tell you the Bruins have put together an extraordinarily awful defense, one that ranks 105th of 117 Division I-A teams in average yardage allowed (431.3).

Fact is, everybody has an agenda, perhaps even the networks carrying the games, as Oklahoma’s Stoops recently suggested. And thanks to the perverted BCS system, which is likely to backfire like never before come Sunday, the college football world is focused on the polls and not the playing field.

“Man, I’m sick of all the politics — I just want to play,” said Auburn All-American cornerback Carlos Rogers. “How can anybody think all this yapping is better than a playoff?”

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