The 2004 Auburn Tigers were together before and after games on the way to a 13-0 record
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — Travis Williams shakes his head at the thought, of it being 10 years since the 2004 Auburn football team went 13-0; of how those Tigers should have, but didn't, play for the national championship; of how what proved to be a star-studded roster came together for one of the best seasons in school history.
"Just a dominating defense. And our offense could go up and down the field. Great quarterback. Great running backs. Great wide receivers. It was a complete team," Williams says.
Travis Williams was the middle linebacker and a team leader for the 2004 Tigers, the one Auburn fans argue should have gone to national championship game. Southern California got to go. Oklahoma got to go. Auburn, ultimately, didn't and would finish second in the nation.
Williams, now a defensive analyst at Auburn, thinks no one was better than his Tigers.
Saturday, Auburn fans will honor the 2004 Tigers in the 10-year — get used to that, Travis Williams — anniversary of a special team.
"The time has flown by so fast," Williams says. "I still remember the last game. I still remember the locker room celebration. I still remember the SEC Championship. I still remember just hoping and wishing we could get a share of the national title. I still remember it all."
The 2004 team featured four players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft: Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams, Jason Campbell and Carlos Rogers. Three of the four are still in the league. That team, with a defense that didn't allow a rushing touchdown until the ninth game of the year, was as complete as any in school history, even though it didn't play for the national title.
"Still, to this day, we just wanted a shot. We always think about it," Williams said.
There will be stories this weekends. And in a few weeks. Auburn will honor two SEC championship teams this season: The 2004 team on Saturday when the Tigers play San Jose State; and the 1989 team on Sept. 27 when Auburn plays Louisiana Tech.
"What's always fun is watching those guys interact," said Auburn Athletics Director Jay Jacobs. "Some of these guys haven't seen each other since 2004, but when you're on a team, and you all get back together, it's as if you've been together every day. It's like getting back together with your best friend."
Jacobs said the 2004 team was special.
"They had some struggles in 2003, but came back with resilience, pulled together, showed great leadership and ran the table."
Auburn beat five Top 15 teams in 2004 and won the Southeastern Conference championship in the middle of Tommy Tuberville's 10-year run as the head coach. That year, most games were over, for all practical purposes, by halftime. Still, Auburn didn't play for the national title and, worse, the day after the Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, Southern California pummeled Oklahoma 55-19 in the title game in the Orange Bowl. Maybe even worse, the NCAA stripped Southern California of that national title seven years later.
Maybe Tuberville was right from the beginning. "How in the world can you keep a team that is 13-0 out of a national championship?" he asked then.
Auburn still thinks it, not Oklahoma, should have played for the championship.
That's never far from Williams, or at least it wasn't when Auburn won the national title in 2010 with Cam Newton; and again last January when Auburn almost did it again with Nick Marshall, Tre Mason and Co.
The natural comparison was who would win in this very modern era of Auburn football: The undefeated 2004 Tigers or the undefeated 2010 Tigers?
"Of course, I'm going to be biased and say 2004 was better," Williams said. "We were definitely a special group of guys in that locker room."
Brown remembered when he and his running mate were honored in the spring when they were inducted into Auburn's Tiger Trail.
"It’s just like being in the backfield together," Brown said.
Together, they rushed for 6,500 yards and 73 touchdowns in their careers.
"I really felt like that 2004 team was special," Carnell Williams said. "It's just a shame we didn’t get to play for it. That's still kind of an empty spot that’s left in my heart."
Carnell Williams will be one of at least 66 returning for the reunion. So will the likes of Kody Bliss, Joe Cope, Brandon Cox, Silas Daniels, Wayne Dickens, Tim Duckworth, Bret Eddins, Derrick Graves, Mariques Gunn, Will Herring, Jeremy Ingle, Danny Lindsey, Pat Lee, Ben Obomanu, Jake Slaughter, Tre Smith, Josh Thompson, John Vaughn, Cooper Wallace, Antarrious Williams and Philip Yost.
They'll be signing autographs beginning at 4 p.m. outside of Plainsman Park. They'll be honored on the field later that day.
Tommy Tuberville, whose son, Tucker, plays for Auburn, will return. So will former running backs coach Eddie Gran, offensive line coach Hugh Nall and defensive line coach Don Dunn.
Some will be working, though. For example, Jason Campbell is with the Cincinnati Bengals. Ronnie Brown is with the Houston Texans. Carlos Rogers is with the San Francisco 49ers.
Travis Williams will be coaching.
'You can do it'
Auburn was supposed to be special in 2003. The Tigers were on the cover of the Sporting News preseason magazine that said Auburn was No. 1. But the 2003 team finished with an 8-5 record. Funny how things work out.
"To be honest," Williams said, "the '03 team was probably more talented than '04. But we were just so together in '04."
Still, no one knew that when it started, or no one but maybe former linebacker coach Joe Whitt.
"We didn't know who the linebackers were, but I knew we had Coach Whitt. He looked me in the eye and said, 'You can do this.' Even if I didn't think I could do it, he told me I could do it. If he says you can do it, you can do it."
It was a message that the entire team seemed to understand.
Of course, there were the stars. There was Ronnie and Carnell. Or, if you prefer, Carnell and Ronnie. However you remember it, they may have been the key. Either could have been all-everything, but they shared the football and set the tone.
"It was big to see that because those were the two guys that everybody knew," Williams said. "They were best friends, and for them to be unselfish, and to share that role, it worked out everybody.
"They showed the team what you could sacrifice to be champions. It went on, from Ben Grubbs, coming in as a defensive player and becoming an offensive lineman; to me moving to Mike linebacker. Nobody was sure about Jason at quarterback, but he had an awesome year.
"We always say we laid that foundation of the way it is supposed to be. But, not to disrespect anybody, it was laid before us. There were great defenses here before 2004.
"What I really liked about being here was Coach Whitt always educated about Auburn history. I know about the '83 season, the '84 season, '89, '88, '90, '91. I know about all the great defenses."
But it was the 2004 team that made it to an undefeated season and to a midfield honor in Jordan-Hare Stadium 10 years later.
Everybody knows the four first-round draft picks. Please, says Williams, don't forget about the others.
"The Bret Eddins and the Doug Langenfelds and the Tommy Jacksons and the Wayne Dickens of the world. Junior Rosegreen. Will Herring. Those were the guys who did the dirty work in a no-name defense," Williams said. "It was a really good group."
With two really good running backs that Williams said would have been a runaway success if they could have had only flashed to the future and played Gus Malzahn's hurry-up offense of today.
Travis Williams is the link from that team to this one.
"I would have loved to see Cadillac and Ronnie in Coach Malzahn's offense," Williams said. "It would be scary."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Auburn Tigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine