You couldn’t blame Auburn fans for any lingering resentment toward the BCS.
Just nine seasons ago their team went undefeated (in the SEC, no less) and was not selected for the national championship game. That contest turned out to be the most lopsided championship game in the history of the BCS, with USC crushing Oklahoma, 55-19. And then USC’s title was vacated as part of a series of punishments for NCAA violations.
It helps that Auburn won a national championship in 2011, but it’s impossible not to wonder what could have been.
“Looking back at that USC-Oklahoma game,” says ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, “it sure would have been nice to have Auburn play USC instead of the way it turned out with Oklahoma.”
When Auburn takes the field on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium for its season opener against Washington State, the 2004 season may seem like a distant memory. There are no coaches left from the group, and no players on the current team were even in high school at that point.
But Auburn fans have not forgotten a number of thrilling games from that memorable campaign.
Auburn came into the season with a roster loaded with veterans and future NFL players. The team was led by senior quarterback Jason Campbell, senior running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, senior cornerback Carlos Rogers as well as future NFL Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeill, Ben Grubbs and Jay Ratliff.
Three weeks into the year the Tigers played their tightest game of the season, a nail-biter against fifth-ranked and defending national champions LSU. Shortly after Hurricane Ivan forced mandatory evacuations in parts of Louisiana, LSU visited Jordan-Hare Stadium for a wild matchup that wasn’t decided until the final 75 seconds. LSU was leading 9-3 until Campbell tossed a touchdown pass to Courtney Taylor with 1:14 left in the game.
Kicker John Vaughn missed the extra point attempt, but a penalty was called on LSU, giving Auburn new life. Vaughn nailed the second attempt, sending Auburn fans into delirium and the team into the rest of the season with no shortage of momentum.
"You hear the old term "smashmouth football," that’s what that one was all day long," remembers Jason Caldwell,
Assistant Editor for Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and AUTigers.com. "I think that was the one that gave them the confidence they needed."
Auburn bulldozed through its next seven games, jumping to No. 3 in the polls for its annual matchup with arch rival Alabama. Even though the Crimson Tide were unranked for the game, Alabama gave the Tigers all they could handle. Auburn trailed at halftime, 6-0, but Campbell and Williams rallied their team to three second half touchdowns. Auburn pulled away, 21-13, and secured a berth in the SEC championship game.
Campbell put in another brilliant performance in that contest in Atlanta, throwing for three touchdowns and accounting for more than 400 yards as the Tigers slipped past Tennessee.
Still, Auburn's undefeated season was not enough to convince pollsters it deserved a chance in the national championship game.
Oklahoma, the 2003 runners up, also finished undefeated after a drubbing of Colorado in the Big 12 championship game. USC, the nation’s top-ranked team, topped UCLA to finish the season a perfect 12-0.
"If we don't get a shot at playing for the national championship, sure, there will be some hard feelings," Campbell said at the time. "But they can't take away what this team did this year."
Sure enough, USC and Oklahoma were selected to face off in Miami.
“You had three teams, all you could really make an argument for that were deserving,” Herbstreit said. “It just so happened to be that Auburn was on the outside looking in that year.”
The Tigers topped Virginia Tech, 16-13, in the Sugar Bowl, but with their thin margin of victory and USC’s blowout of Oklahoma, there was no question who would be named national champions.
However now, with USC’s national championship vacated, that title is unclear. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, for one, wants a revote.
"If they were ineligible, I think they should have a revote and let people vote on it and decide who they think was the best team that year," Tuberville said after USC's title was revoked. "If everybody thinks it was Oklahoma, that's fine. If everybody thinks it was Auburn, that's fine."
The revote never happened, and Auburn had to settle for No. 2 in 2004. Six years later, led by Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, the Tigers went on to win the school's first national championship in more than 50 years.
Auburn fans got some more delayed consolation recently when the NCAA adopted a playoff system (set to begin after the 2014-2015 regular season), which may have been prompted in large part by Auburn's misfortune in 2004.
Unfortunately that won't ease all the pain.
"The bitterness may be gone," Caldwell says, "but I don’t think people will ever forget that season because they felt like by the end of the year that team could have played with anyone in the country. It kind of always sticks with you a little bit."
For now that squad remains undefeated but uncrowned.