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Original Issue

Bittersweet Sugar

Auburn's SEC title sends the Tigers to New Orleans--and leaves them to ponder why perfection wasn't good enough

AS JASON CAMPBELL celebrated on the Georgia Dome turf following the Tigers' 38--28 victory over Tennessee in last Saturday's SEC championship game, the Tigers' faithful in the lower deck began chanting, "Jason, Jason." Upon seeing them the Auburn quarterback ran over to the stands and began high-fiving fans--many of them the same people who used to call for his head.

Capping a remarkable senior year in which the formerly erratic signal-caller blossomed into one of the nation's top passers, Campbell completed 27 of 35 passes for three touchdowns and a career-high 374 yards as the Tigers secured their first SEC title since 1989 and the first 12--0 regular season in school history. Still, that wasn't enough to push Auburn ahead of USC or Oklahoma in the final BCS standings and left the Tigers to face Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3--the first undefeated major conference team in the seven years of the BCS not to play for the national title. "We deserve a shot," said Campbell. "It's hard to go undefeated in the SEC, beat three top 10 teams [LSU, Tennessee and Georgia] and beat Tennessee twice."

Going into Saturday the third-ranked Tigers had the slim hope that if they beat the 9--2 Vols convincingly and Oklahoma struggled against Colorado, enough voters in the AP and coaches' polls would move Auburn ahead of the Sooners, compensating for its poor standing in the BCS's computer polls. (Nonconference games against Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech and the Citadel hurt Auburn's schedule-strength rating.) While the Tigers' offense turned in another powerful performance, racking up 559 yards and 31 first downs, an interception of a Campbell pass in the end zone just before halftime and a fumble at his own 19 early in the third quarter helped the Vols get back in the game, and the Tigers' normally impenetrable defense allowed runs of 80 and 54 yards to Gerald Riggs. Campbell's two second-half TD throws, of 53 and 43 yards, proved to be the difference against Tennessee, but it wasn't enough for the BCS.

New Orleans may not be Auburn's preferred destination, but the season has been richly rewarding for a group of seniors (Campbell, running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, cornerback Carlos Rogers) who endured two five-loss seasons and a foiled scheme by then university president William Walker last year to dump coach Tommy Tuberville. No one endured more than Campbell, the primary scapegoat for Auburn's offensive woes earlier in his career. Under innovative offensive coordinator Al Borges, Campbell flourished in '04, finishing third in the nation in passing efficiency. "I tell all my players, if you do what Jason did and learn from adversity like he did," said Tuberville, "you'll do well in life." Thanks to the BCS, the Tigers have learned one other important lesson: Life isn't always fair. --Stewart Mandel




Campbell will finish with no national title but plenty of laurels.