But just when visions of Bourbon Street on New Year's danced in UT fans' heads, Auburn made a statement about deserving a spot in the national championship game by dashing Tennessee's momentum with an 85-yard touchdown drive.
A few minutes and a field goal later, the Tigers were up 31-21 and on the way to a 38-28 victory, their first conference title in 15 years and a 12-0 record, the most wins ever for an Auburn team.
For Tuberville, the victory was sweetly ironic, having barely survived a secret move to fire him at the end of last season.
''You just can't put into words how an undefeated season feels,'' Tuberville said. ''All the guys will look back on this season and think about where we started, how we played and how we finished up.
''This is the first time Auburn has gone undefeated and won an SEC Championship in a long time. This is a great thing for us and I'm very proud of what our guys have accomplished.''
The Vols wanted to avoid turnovers on offense and giving up big plays on defense, a combination that led to the 34-10 Auburn victory in the first meeting this season in Knoxville. But Tennessee succeeded in solving only half of the formula.
Third-team quarterback Rick Clausen didn't throw an interception and there were no UT fumbles in the contest, but the Vol defense couldn't stop Auburn's big-play machine -- not Williams and Brown, but senior quarterback Jason Campbell and his arm and feet.
Campbell, the game's MVP, threw for 374 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 57 to set a new total yardage mark for a quarterback in the SEC Championship game, breaking the record set by Florida's Danny Wuerffel. Tennessee's defense wanted to force Campbell to win the game throwing the football, and he did.
''I think what Jason did speaks for itself,'' Auburn offensive coordinator Al Bourges said. ''He threw tonight like what he could do (in every game). We don't (usually) need to use that. With our two great running backs, he doesn't get the opportunity. We saw Tennessee wanted to stop the run and we wanted to test that.''
Campbell's 57 yards on the ground wasn't expected either, especially with Williams, who finished with 100 yards, and Brown, who had 50 yards, taking turns in the backfield. But Campbell's rushing yardage came in crucial situations and kept the UT defense guessing play action or run.
''I haven't run all year and my teammates say 'Don't run,' '' Campbell said. ''But Coach Bourges wanted to do it here because of certain defenses Tennessee was running.''
The unofficial MVP for the Volunteers was junior tailback Gerald Riggs, who rushed for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. His 80-yard TD run in the third quarter to tie the game was the longest of his career and the second-longest in SEC title game history.
It was the kind of dominant performance Riggs has seemed capable of since his arrival at UT, but coaches let him sit for two seasons without allowing him the kind of opportunity he has had this season.
''The offensive line played their butts off, and I found holes and hit them,'' Riggs said. ''We made the best of the plays we had. Everybody went out and played their hearts out.''
That wasn't enough to overcome the balanced Auburn offense and 12 flags thrown on the Vols in the contest. Although head coach Phillip Fulmer suggested officials called a one- sided game (Auburn was penalized only four times), he refused to criticize officials.
Yet the Vols have earned a reputation -- especially on offense -- for committing penalties that stop drives and nullify touchdowns, as was the case when Cedric Houston ran 80 yards for a score and then had it called back.
Penalities and the inability to defend the pass ultimately led to Tennessee's demise in this fourth attempt to pull off an upset when labeled a double-digit underdog.
''They (Auburn) play great defense and Jason Campbell was amazing,'' Fulmer said. ''Auburn is a fantastic football team, certainly a top-three team in the country.''
Fulmer said he thought Clausen played well enough at quarterback, despite his 8 of 20 completions for only 69 yards and one touchdown.
''He had plenty of dropped balls. You know, the quarterback is just as good as the team around him,'' Fulmer said.