Despite winning the Sugar Bowl 16-13 to improve to 13-0, barring an upset of monumental proportions in the AP Top 25 voting the Tigers are going to have to settle for second place, at best, in the major polls following Tuesday night's BCS title game in the Orange Bowl matching No. 1 Southern Cal vs. No. 2 Oklahoma.
Auburn's hope for a split national title was for a dominating victory over the ACC champion Virginia Tech Hokies. The Tigers had the whip hand with a 16-0 third quarter lead and a chance to add more points, but the Tigers fumbled the opportunity down the stretch to take the dominating win.
While head coach Tommy Tuberville, senior quarterback Jason Campbell and others lobbied AP voters to elevate the Tigers to number one after the game, the voice of Courtney Taylor was more likely on target when he admitted, "We have had a great season, but it is going to be tough to move up to number one. If we had won 23-0 or 30-0 I think we might have had a better chance, but that isn't the case."
Taylor did all he could for the cause as he helped Campbell win Sugar Bowl Most Valuable Player honors with five catches for 87 yards.
Campbell completed 11-16 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown. He likely could have had much more passing yardage, but Tuberville admitted he ordered offensive coordinator Al Borges to go conservative and run the clock after the Tigers took a 16-0 lead.
"You hope you can get a crack in there somewhere," Borges says. "We have good enough backs. Generally, if you give them enough room they are going to get a few yards.
"The thing you don't want to do is indiscriminately throw the ball because they have got everybody up there," Borges added. "You can do that in the first, second and third quarter, without blinking an eye, but when the ball hits the ground it stops the clock. When you run the ball, it takes 35 seconds off the clock. When you throw the ball, you take six.
"When your defense is playing as well as our defense was playing, you don't want to put them in a hole like that."
Ronnie Brown rushed for 68 yards on 14 carries. As a team the Tigers netted 110 rushing yards.
Unfortunately for Auburn's strategy, the defense lost the whip hand in the fourth quarter and gave up a pair of quick touchdowns, allowing the Hokies to keep the game interesting until the final seconds. For an AP voter looking for a reason to jump the Tigers from third to first in the final Top 25 poll, a two-point victory over a team that came in with two losses that outgained the Tigers 375 yards to 299 is not likely to earn enough respect to change voting patterns.
Auburn was working on a shutout, but gave up a 29-yard TD pass with 6:58 left and an 80-yarder with 2:01 to play to turn a comfortable victory into a narrow win.
"You can't come out and be spectacular every game," Brown said. "We finished 13-0 and I think that is enough to vote us number one. I really don't think the margin of victory matters."
Campbell pointed out that his Tigers won four games vs. Top 10 opposition and said that no matter what happens in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night, he believes his team is the best in the country.
Tuberville again refused to endorse a Division I football playoff system, but said a "plus one" game after the bowl games are finished would be the fairest way to pick the national champion. However, despite having a vote in the coaches Top 25 poll, he won't be allowed to vote for his Tigers number one because the rules say he can only vote on the number two through 25 spots. The winner of the BCS title game, the Orange Bowl, will automatically win the coaches Top 25 poll national title.
After allowing the Hokies one first down on the game's opening possession, the Tigers took the lead on a six-play scoring drive started by a 35-yard pass to Cooper Wallace on the Tigers' first offensive play.
Ronnie Brown then bulled for 31 yards up the middle, but the Tigers had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by John Vaughn to take a 3-0 lead with 8:47 left in the first quarter following the 68-yard drive.
The Tigers moved the ball into scoring position with a first and goal at the Virginia Tech six after a defensive holding penalty as Wallace was grabbed while trying to run a pass pattern. Three running plays, one by Carnell Williams and two by Brown, left the ball just inside the two. Auburn called two straight timeouts before deciding to kick a second Vaughn field goal. This one, from 19 yards out, made the score 6-0 with 1:10 left in the first quarter.
Despite being outplayed much of the half, the Hokies had a great opportunity to take the lead by driving deep into Auburn territory. However, the Tigers made a stand, holding the Hokies on fourth and goal inside the one when a flat pass to the fullback was incomplete.
Campbell then quickly got the football out of trouble with a two-yard sneak and 16-yard pass to Courtney Taylor. The Tigers moved into scoring territory when Taylor caught a 37 pass from Campbell.
However, the Tigers had to settle for the third Vaughn field goal of the half when he connected on a 24-yarder with 1:50 left in the first half.
After two quarters the Tigers held a 181-159 advantage in total yards and a 16:17 to 13:43 edge in time of possession. Campbell was 7-10 passing for 129 yards while Randall hit 10-21 for the Hokies for 106 yards with an interception.
Auburn ran the football only 17 times for 52 yards in the opening half. Brown had 42 of those yards on five runs while Williams was held to just 15 net yards on seven carries. Randall rushed for 42 of Virginia Tech's 53 yards.
The Tigers wasted no time after taking the second half kickoff in resolving its touchdown issue. They moved 78 yards on eight plays for the score, a five-yard pass on third down and two from the five-yard to Devin Aromashodu.
The big play on the drive was a 53-yard pass from VT 13-yard line.
Virginia Tech forced the first Auburn turnover of the night with 2:44 left in the third quarter when cornerback Jimmy Williams made a diving catch on a bootleg pass play from Campbell. That put the Hokies in great field position at the Auburn 32.
Tech barely made a fourth down and one run to the Tiger 10, but was stopped on fourth and goal at the AU six. Frank Beamer called on his field goal kicker to make the short kick, but Hokies continued to have a goose egg next to their name on the scoreboard as the field goal attempt sailed wide. Auburn got the ball back with 13:56 left in the game.
Tech managed to score on its next possession after it looked like the Tigers were on the way to padding their lead. A fumble on a third down and one run by Williams gave the Hokies the football at their own 28.
A pass for two points bounced off the turf in front of the intended receiver and Auburn led 16-6 with 6:58 left in the game.
Tech's next score was an easy one as Morgan was uncovered behind the Auburn secondary and untouched on an 80-yard bomb from Randall with 2:01 left.
Wallace helped preserve the victory by recovering the onside kick to keep the Tigers unbeaten.
Tuberville said he hopes to be able to give his players national championship rings.
"We are a well-rounded football team that is 13-0," the coach said. "We can't do any more than what we did so we'll accept some national championship from somebody if anybody wants to give it to us."
Sugar Bowl Notes: Auburn scored on its opening possession for the 10th time this season. They also kept their opponent from scoring for the 11th time in 13 games...Virginia Tech was the seventh AU opponent that failed to score in the first half this season. AU outscored opponents 221-39 in the first half...The last time Auburn held a bowl opponent scoreless in the first half was in 1938 vs. Michigan State at the Orange Bowl. The only other time that happened was in the 1937 Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba vs. Villanova...The victory gives Auburn three straight bowl wins. The last time that happened was 1982-84...AU is the third team in SEC history to finish 13-0 joining 1982 Alabama and 1998 Tennessee.