December 4, 2004
ATLANTA, Ga. - Take that, pollsters and computers. The team most likely to be left out of the national championship game has a trophy of its own.
For Auburn, that will probably have to do.
Jason Campbell threw for three touchdowns and accounted for more than 400 yards, leading the No. 3 Tigers to a 38-28 victory over 15th-ranked Tennessee in the SEC championship game Saturday night.
Despite being 12-0 for the first time in school history, Auburn appears to be the odd team out in another Bowl Championship Series mess.
"If we don't get a shot at playing for the national championship, sure, there will be some hard feelings," Campbell said. "But they can't take away what this team did this year."
Not that the Tigers passed up the chance to get in some last-minute lobbying.
"We definitely deserve a chance to play for the national championship," Campbell said. "We've done all we can do. We've done what people asked."
No. 1 Southern California also finished 12-0 by holding off UCLA 29-24 earlier Saturday. No. 2 Oklahoma (12-0) did nothing to hurt its standing, coasting to a 42-3 victory over Colorado in a Big 12 title game that ended after the Tigers had celebrated their first SEC championship since 1989.
"When you go 12-0 in the SEC, there's no doubt in my mind you should play in the dance -- and that's the Orange Bowl," Auburn safety Junior Rosegreen said. "Everyone in the world knows how hard we fought. We've been through it all, and we came out on top."
Even so, Auburn is expected to get twice-beaten Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl -- not USC or Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Those teams led the BCS standings, and only a major change of heart from the poll voters or a short-circuiting of the computers will keep the Trojans and Sooners from playing for another disputed national championship.
"This is a true team, from top to bottom," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, capping his own remarkable comeback from nearly getting fired a year ago. "I just hope everyone will be fair when they vote tonight. I know we'll get at least one first-place vote" in the coaches poll.
Campbell, the game's MVP, did all he could to get the Tigers to Miami. He completed 27-of-35 for 374 yards -- the first 300-yard passing game of his career. He also rushed for 57 yards, setting an SEC championship game record with 431 yards total offense.
Tennessee (9-3), which will settle for a trip to the Cotton Bowl, played much better than its first meeting against Auburn. The Volunteers were embarrassed on their home field, committing six turnovers in a 34-10 loss in early October.
With third-string Rick Clausen at quarterback because of injuries, the Volunteers rallied to tie this game at 21 on Gerald Riggs Jr.'s 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Then, Tennessee pulled to 31-28 with just over 10 minutes remaining when Riggs rumbled for a 9-yard TD.
But Campbell would not be denied. He finished off the Volunteers with his final touchdown, a 43-yard pass to Ben Obomanu with 6:56 remaining.
Tennessee might have pulled off the upset if not for three crucial penalties. Cedric Houston had a 70-yard touchdown run wiped out by a yellow flag, and a holding call negated a 44-yard pass from Clausen to Robert Meachem.
Also, Campbell threw a 53-yard scoring pass to Devin Aromashodu -- putting the Tigers ahead to stay late in the third quarter -- after an interference penalty on Roshaun Fellows extended the drive.
Tennessee was livid about the calls.
"In 13 years, I've never criticized the officials, and many times I've taken up for the officials," Fulmer said. "I'm not going to cross that line now, but I'll be real anxious to see the film. That's all I'm going to say."
Riggs gained 182 yards on just 11 carries, the first runner in 17 games to surpass 100 yards against the fearsome Auburn defense. Houston also ran for a touchdown that counted, giving the Vols three rushing scores against a team that had given up only one season.
Auburn had a 14-0 lead before Tennessee made a first down, and the Tigers dominated the first two quarters. Auburn held a 303-39 lead in total yards at the half, was up 17-2 in first downs and had a nearly 13-minute edge in time of possession.
"Too much, too early," Fulmer said.
Yet the Volunteers were still in the game, trailing only 21-7 because of two big mistakes by Auburn.
Punter Kody Bliss mishandled a snap, and Tennessee took over at the Tigers 14. The blunder set up Houston's 2-yard touchdown dive.
Auburn was in position to extend its two-touchdown lead in the waning seconds of the first half, but Campbell messed up by attempting a pass over the middle. The ball was intercepted in the end zone by Corey Campbell with just 7 seconds left, costing the Tigers a chance to at least attempt a field goal.
The Auburn quarterback had another costly turnover early in the second half, fumbling on a hit by Kevin Burnett. Turk McBride recovered at Auburn 19, leading to Clausen's 17-yard touchdown pass to Meachem.
After Bliss punted into the Tennessee end zone, Riggs found a gaping hole on the very next play. He wasn't so much as touched on his long, tying touchdown.
"The pressure was on them," said Clausen, who was just 8-of-20 for 69 yards. "They were ranked third in the nation, and we were projected to finish third in the conference. We had nothing to lose."
But Jason Campbell made sure the Tigers came away from this season with at least one title.
"It's been 15 long years since Auburn won an SEC championship, and we've never won 12 games in a season," Tuberville said. "This is a special team."