Saturday, December 4, 2004

AUBURN, Ala. — Christmas won’t be coming to Auburn this year.

“The system has forsaken us,” moans local contractor “Tiny Tim” Thompson, standing in the parking lot of a strip mall less than a mile from Auburn University. “Santa ain’t stopping here. Nope, that’s a fact. He’ll be visiting Trojans and Sooners but not us. Our Tigers have been good. Heck, they’ve been perfect. But all we’re getting is a lump of coal.”

Actually, it’s a $15million lump called the Sugar Bowl, but Thompson made his point. Auburn fans are likely to celebrate an SEC Championship victory over Tennessee and a flawless 12-0 regular season tonight, only to spend tomorrow mourning the loss of a sports lifetime.

Trailing fellow unbeatens USC (11-0) and Oklahoma (11-0) in both polls and the BCS standings, the Tigers are likely to become the first undefeated major conference team in the brief and inglorious six-year history of the BCS to be denied a national title shot.

“The BCS is [lousy], and you can quote me on that,” says Kristy Parker, a senior at the university and a clerk at American Speedy Printing Centers. “This whole town is plenty angry about it. … [ESPN college football commentator] Lee Corso said it best when he said there would be another Civil War if we get the shaft. I don’t doubt there will be some sort of madness.”

A town of just 44,000 people 120 miles southwest of Atlanta, Auburn isn’t like Los Angeles, or even Norman, Okla., the cities that boast the No. 1 Trojans and No. 2 Sooners.

If Southern Cal were the odd-team out in the Orange Bowl mix, the media would be more outraged than any perceived fan base. Perhaps a few sushi rolls would fly, or the odd curse would be uttered and drowned by the indifferent din of the metropolis. Not so in Auburn, where it takes only a small leap of imagination to envision an army of pickup-mounted deer hunters rolling on NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.

“This is the definition of a college town,” says Todd Godwin, a 34-year-old alum and the manager of Big Blue Bookstore. “Look around you, man. This town wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the university.”

You look around the University Shopping Plaza and see businesses with names like “Tiger Package,” “Tiger Rags,” and a personal favorite, “Tiger Tans.” You can’t help wondering if coach Tommy Tuberville has ever visited the last establishment for a little pregame bake.

The athletic department’s tiger-eyes logo is omnipresent, painted on sidewalks, garnishing display windows, even supplanting the standard plastic veneer on nearby Coke machines.

If you stand in the center of the plaza’s parking lot, you can see the back ends of 24 vehicles. All but six bear some reference to the university, from conservative license-plate frames to standard bumper stickers to comically garish window flags. Two others reference fellow SEC schools Alabama and Georgia.

“Football truly is a religion in the SEC,” Godwin says. “You hear that all the time on TV or whatever, but unless you’ve actually experienced it and lived in the Southeast, I’m not sure you can really appreciate or understand it. Football is not a game to these people. I’m not saying that’s rational, but it is reality. It’s God, football and country around here, and not necessarily in that order.

“What’s happening to Auburn this year is a travesty. And I guess after all we’ve been through, with probation and all and waiting nearly 50 years for our chance, people are just having a real hard time accepting that we’re going to be the team that gets hosed.”

If the BCS were handled the way the Big Ten handles ties when deciding its Rose Bowl representative, Auburn would be headed for the Orange Bowl and a title shot with a victory tonight over No.15 Tennessee (9-2). The Trojans shared last season’s national title. And Oklahoma, which won the title in 2000, was defeated in last season’s BCS title game by LSU — another SEC team.

Auburn hasn’t won a national title since 1957 — hasn’t even come close. The school’s best recent season was 11-0 in 1993, a year in which it was barred from postseason eligibility or title consideration because of recruiting violations. That’s not to say the Tigers haven’t had their share of success. But if it’s extremely difficult to go unbeaten in a major conference, it’s been an almost demonic task in the SEC — universally regarded as the toughest conference in college football.

Though Auburn players and coaches have been remarkably subdued and classy in their criticisms of the system, they seem almost mystified that a team could go undefeated in such a league and not reach the title game.

A month ago, as he stood in the press box before Auburn spanked fifth-ranked Georgia 24-6 to run its record to 10-0, longtime New York Daily News columnist Dick Weiss surveyed the electric scene at Jordan-Hare Stadium and remarked, “This really is it, isn’t it? This atmosphere, these people, this conference — this is the epicenter of college football.”

Yes. Why else would Utah’s Urban Meyer choose Florida over Notre Dame? Money? OK, why else would Florida be willing to pay him twice as much as the Irish?

Auburn could be spared from this unthinkable BCS fate if USC loses to UCLA or Oklahoma loses to Colorado today, but both are three-touchdown favorites. And perhaps a rout by Auburn, coupled with a narrow Oklahoma win, could serve the same purpose if the Tigers then vaulted the Sooners in both polls and, as a result, in the BCS standings.

But such a scenario is a stretch. And there’s little immediate solace in knowing it was your team that provided the painful paradigm that expedited a playoff system.

“In a movie, USC or Oklahoma would get upset, and the Tigers would get their shot at respect. But this ain’t the movies,” says Thompson. “And a future playoff doesn’t help our boys who have worked their tails off this season. Nope, I’m afraid this one has an unhappy ending.”

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