Phillip Marshall Column: Danger Lurks For Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall reflects on the 2004 Auburn football season and writes about the Sugar Bowl matchup vs. Virginia Tech.

Friday will be a day of celebration in Auburn.

Hundreds of students will graduate, picking up the degrees that will serve them well as they go on into life in the real world.

There will be festivities at Toomer's Corner honoring the 2004 Southeastern Conference championship football team, one of the best and maybe the best ever to wear Auburn blue. Some of the top recruits on Auburn's list will be in town to witness it all.

As hard as it may be, the Auburn family, as folks like to call it, should also use that day for closure. There will be no widely recognized national championship, not this season. The stars just didn't line up right.

That statement is not meant in the condescending way of ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit. I'm not saying Auburn people should just accept their place as the No. 3 team in the country. In fact, if the Tigers beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, I won't blame Auburn people if they scream from the mountaintops that they have the best team in America.

The Tigers ought to claim any national championship awarded to them. As Alabama and others have proved, if you say it enough, sooner or later it will be accepted as fact. Auburn teams were ranked No. 1 by at least one group in seven seasons--1910, 1913, 1914, 1957, 1958, 1983 and 1993. If you ask me, the school ought to claim them all. Others do.

But there won't be a split national championship in the major polls this season. Period. End of story. The Orange Bowl hype would have been overwhelming under any circumstances. And now it will be the only college football game ever played with two Heisman Trophy winners--Oklahoma's Jason White and USC's Matt Leinart--playing against one another.

It's too much. There is, putting it simply, no rational hope that enough Associated Press voters would move Auburn ahead of the winner of that game, regardless of what happens in the Sugar Bowl.

It is time, not to forget the ridiculous system that left Auburn on the outside looking in, but to remember what the 2004 Tigers accomplished. They won the SEC championship, something only five other Auburn teams have done. They won it outright, sharing it with no one, something only three other Auburn teams have done. They are the first Auburn team to win it in the winner-take-all championship game.

They will, remarkably, be the first unbeaten Auburn team ever to play in a bowl game. They have already won more games than any team in Auburn history. They have a chance to finish off a season that will be with them until they die.

To continue to fret over what might have been will only take some of the shine off what is.

There are plenty of good football teams, and Auburn has had its share. There aren't many great ones, and this Auburn team is a great one.

But danger lurks. A friend reminded me Sunday night of something that happened 30 years ago.

Auburn had finished a 9-2 regular season with a gut-wrenching 17-13 loss to Alabama in a game that decided the SEC championship and went to play Texas in the Gator Bowl. Texas players and coaches thought they deserved better than the Gator Bowl and said it often. By gametime, Auburn players were sick and tired of hearing it. They felt disrespected, felt like they were viewed differently than Texas.

The Tigers, 11-point underdogs, won 27-3 that day. They turned the ball over inside the Texas 20-yard line four times, or it might well have been 50-3. Putting it simply, the game was never in doubt. Auburn and Texas played on different emotional levels.

From the time they start practice next Thursday, Auburn players will be asked the over and over again about their feelings about being left out of the Orange Bowl. They will, no doubt, be truthful and say they are disappointed.

Virginia Tech players will hear it. They already have. They know Auburn was jilted. They know the Tigers believe they should be headed for Miami instead of New Orleans. And by the time the game is played on Jan. 3, they'll be sick of hearing it. They'll feel disrespected and feel they are viewed different than Auburn.

It's difficult situation for the Tigers. The same seniors who have carried them through 12 games will be called on to do it again. They'll have to do it against a motivated and talented opponent, one that has won eight consecutive games.

The Hokies are excited, downright delighted, to be playing in the Sugar Bowl. They'll go with a plan to play the best they have played all season. If Auburn doesn't go with the same excitement and same plan, a great season might well come to an unhappy end.

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