Eye of the Tiger
Why Auburn deserves to be in the national championship game.
11:00 PM, Dec 8, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
AUBURN is a pretty town in the middle of nowhere. It's in eastern Alabama, 100 miles from Atlanta, just off I-85. It's a classic college town, dominated by Auburn University. Once a cow college, Auburn is now a major state university with 25,000 students. It's a conservative place with fraternities and sororities and heavy student participation in religious activities. I can't prove it, but my guess is the student body voted overwhelmingly for President Bush last month.
Auburn has an unbeaten football team, but it won't play in the national championship game in Miami on January 4. The fact that the school is off the beaten track is one reason for this oversight. The sports establishment doesn't flock to Auburn for football games the way it does to Los Angeles to watch USC or to Norman, Oklahoma, to see the Sooners. But Auburn has a great athletic tradition. Bo Jackson played football there. Charles Barkley was a basketball star and still shows up for football games. Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium seats 90,000 fans and games begin only after an eagle circles the field and lands at the 50-yard line. Hence, the Auburn greeting, "War eagle!"
The Auburn team has taken its relegation to a secondary bowl--the Sugar Bowl on January 3--in good spirits. But Auburn truly has gotten a raw deal. Everyone who follows sports in American knows the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system for determining the number one team doesn't work. USC and Oklahoma finished their regular seasons first and second in the BCS standings because that's where they started. Auburn was wildly underrated when the season began, ranking 17th in one poll. Since USC and Oklahoma remained unbeaten, Auburn couldn't pass them in the BCS rankings. That's the way the system works.
But I'm convinced Auburn is the best football team in the country. True, I'm a bit biased. My son Freddy goes to Auburn and I've become a fan. But I also have an advantage over many of the sportswriters and coaches who vote in the weekly rankings. I've seen Auburn play four times this year and watched several more games on TV. I doubt if most writers or coaches saw Auburn play more than once.
Like USC and Oklahoma, Auburn has a balanced team. Its two running backs, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, are likely to be first round picks in the NFL draft. The quarterback, Jason Campbell, was a disappointment to Auburn fans--until this year when he emerged as a brilliant team leader and pinpoint passer. He excelled on third-and-long situations. Auburn's defense featured the best cornerback in the country, Carlos Rogers, another sure-fire first round pick. Opponents rarely passed or even ran on Rogers's side. The Auburn defense overpowered the offensive machines of LSU, Georgia, and Tennessee.
Note those three highly ranked teams that Auburn defeated--crushed actually. Auburn beat Tennessee twice, first on the Vols' home field in Knoxville, then last Saturday in the SEC championship game in Atlanta. Who did USC defeat? Only two ranked teams, Cal and Arizona State. What about Oklahoma? The Sooners beat Texas and Texas Tech. The simple truth is USC and Oklahoma had weaker schedules.
This was a down year for the PAC-10, USC's conference, and the Big 12, Oklahoma's. But there's never a down year in the SEC. It is the best football conference in the nation year after year, including this year. An away game in the SEC is a visit to hostile territory, yet Auburn won handily everywhere. And, as usual, the SEC had more top 25 teams this season (5) than the PAC-10 (3) or Big 12 (4). The SEC champ, especially if it's unbeaten, belongs in the national championship game.
Auburn is also a great story. There's an appealing drama behind its success. Late last season, the school's president and athletic director tried to line up a new coach to replace Tommy Tuberville. They met secretly with the University of Louisville's coach and would have hired him if their mission hadn't been exposed in the press. Instead, Tuberville stayed, Auburn's president left, and the athletic director is retiring. On top of that, a number of players who could have jumped to the pros--Williams, Brown, Rogers--stayed for a final year at Auburn. And Tuberville brought in a new offensive coordinator, Al Borges, who injected excitement and unpredictability into the Auburn offense.
The Auburn team also has class. It showed this last Saturday against Tennessee. When a Tennessee player was hurt and lay motionless on the field, the Auburn players gathered together, knelt and prayed for his recovery. Maybe other teams would have done the same, maybe not. But I was impressed.