The 2004 Auburn Tigers, the National Championship Team That Wasn't

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterDecember 29, 2014

Former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville
Former Auburn head coach Tommy TubervilleRIC FELD/Associated Press

Had the 2004 Auburn Tigers played a decade later, things would be different.

They'd undoubtedly be in the four-team playoff with their undefeated record and SEC title in hand, preparing for a showdown with No. 2 Oklahoma in what most likely would be the Sugar Bowl.

Unfortunately, the flux capacitor doesn't exist.

The unblemished Tigers will go down as the poster-child of the primary flaw of the BCS. While the 2012 BCS National Championship Game between LSU and Alabama—who played each other during the 2011 regular season—will go down as the straw that broke the camel's back, Tommy Tuberville's 2004 Auburn team is the one that bailed the hay.

Ten years later, how do some of Auburn's key participants feel about the season, the snub and the aftermath?

The Preseason

Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville
Auburn head coach Tommy TubervilleStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

The offseason leading up to the 2004 campaign was tumultuous on the Plains. An ill-fated attempt to lure then-Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino to take over for Tuberville blew up in the faces of Auburn brass, and players entered the season motivated to play for the coaching staff.

"We were disappointed in ourselves and how we played," said Bret Eddins, who was a senior defensive end on the 2004 Tigers. "We felt like our lack of execution almost got a guy fired."

The failed attempt to lure Petrino coupled with the losses of key defensive pieces including defensive lineman Reggie Torbor and linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas presented questions for the staff.

Former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville
Former Auburn head coach Tommy TubervilleDAVE MARTIN/Associated Press

"After the JetGate incident, everybody had their heads on a swivel," said Gene Chizik, former Auburn head coach (2009-2012) and defensive coordinator on the 2004 team. "I think we were optimistic because we knew that we were a talented team, but didn't know how those parts of the puzzle were going to fit together."

One of those pieces of the puzzle was first-year offensive coordinator Al Borges, who came to Auburn from Indiana to install his pro-style offense. Borges had been an offensive coordinator since 1986, including stops at Oregon (1995) and UCLA (1996-2000). When he arrived, he inherited the keys to a Ferrari.

Running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams decided to come back to Auburn shortly after the JetGate storm subsided and joined rising senior quarterback Jason Campbell in the Tigers backfield.

"We had a lot of good senior leadership on that team," said former quarterback Brandon Cox, who backed up Campbell in 2004. "When Carnell and Ronnie decided to come back for their senior seasons, that got everybody excited."

But just how good could this group be?

The Season

Campbell went into the season as the starter, but Cox got first-team snaps too in the 31-0 season-opening win over Louisiana-Monroe. An easy win over Mississippi State set up a showdown with defending national champion LSU in Auburn.

Former Auburn WR Courtney Taylor
Former Auburn WR Courtney TaylorTODD J. VAN EMST/Associated Press

Campbell completed 16 of 27 passes for 170 yards and one touchdown—a 16-yarder to Courtney Taylor on 3rd-and-12 with 1:14 to play. Kicker John Vaughn missed the initial extra point, but a leaping penalty on Early Doucet gave him another chance—which he put through to give Auburn a 10-9 win over Nick Saban's LSU Tigers.

Two weeks later, they went on the road and throttled Tennessee 34-10 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.

"That was what really gave us confidence and what gave the coaches confidence in us," Eddins said. "It seems like their attitude toward play-calling and their attitudes in practice changed, and they thought 'OK, we're really going to cut y'all loose.'"

TODD J. VAN EMST/Associated Press

It was in Knoxville when the 2004 Tigers evolved from a 5-0 team that got off into a hot start to a team with much bigger goals in mind.

"I remember the Tiger Walk for the Tennessee game, and there was a sea of Auburn fans in orange and blue everywhere," Cox said. "It's still, to this day, one of the best Tiger Walks that we ever experienced. They had police officers trying to hold the fans back, they gave up and the fans started going nuts.

"We went into the locker room at halftime up 31-3, and I remember being in there, looking around the room and thinking that it has clicked. I could see the confidence that the team had, and that was the start of something special."

It was more than a feeling; it was reality.

The Tigers cruised through October and throttled No. 8 Georgia 24-6 on Nov. 13, which brought them even with Oklahoma as the No. 2 team in the BCS standings behind No. 1 USC. In that game, the Tigers defense held an offense that had David Greene at quarterback, Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown outside and Thomas Brown and Danny Ware at running back scoreless for the first 57 minutes of the game.

"It was a confirmation," Chizik said. "When you play a team like Georgia and shut them out for that long in a game, we knew we were as good as we thought we were."

Auburn 2004 Season
Sept. 4Louisiana-MonroeW 31-0
Sept. 11at Mississippi StateW 43-14
Sept. 18(5) LSUW 10-9
Sept. 25The CitadelW 33-3
Oct. 2at (10) TennesseeW 34-10
Oct. 9Louisiana TechW 52-7
Oct. 16ArkansasW 38-20
Oct. 23KentuckyW 42-10
Oct. 30at Ole MissW 35-14
Nov. 13(8) GeorgiaW 24-6
Nov. 20at AlabamaW 21-13
Dec. 4vs. (15) Tennessee (in Atlanta, Ga.)W 38-28
Jan. 3vs. (9) Virginia Tech (in New Orleans, La.)W 16-13

After that game, the Auburn locker room was jubilant, confident and motivated.

"We absolutely felt like we could and would beat anyone we played," Eddins said. "We had already beaten good teams without our best game so we knew if we played well we would win and the Georgia game showed what we looked like when we were on."

Two weeks later, Auburn won a rather sloppy Iron Bowl 21-13 to finish off the regular season 11-0.

That's when things got interesting.

Tuberville embarked on a campaign to boast about his Tigers, knowing that the rather sluggish win over an Alabama team that was on its third-string quarterback wouldn't sit well in the minds of voters—many of whom had USC and Oklahoma in the top two spots since August.

"This is the Iron Bowl, and that's what it should be like," he said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "People will say, 'They struggled,' and most people who vote haven't been at this game before."

Teams and coaches always focus on the next week, but Tuberville's willingness to step out on a pedestal, sell Auburn to anyone willing to listen and fight for his team was well received.

"I was glad he did it," Eddins said. "I think you'll have a lot of coaches come out and say they're taking it 'one step at a time,' but he saw what was happening. He's a really sharp and savvy guy, and wanted to try to get out in front of it. I applaud him for that. That's his job as a head coach."

The Snub

Auburn topped Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game 38-28, but at that point, the hay was already in the barn.

USC survived a scare from UCLA as the Vols and Tigers were playing, and Oklahoma blew out Colorado at Arrowhead in Stadium that night. Even though the Sooners' fate was still technically in doubt when the confetti dropped in the Georgia Dome, Auburn knew its fate.

"It was one of those things where, you try not to look ahead, but you do," Eddins said. "We just beat a really good Tennessee team for the second time that year, but we're not going to get any credit for this because it wasn't a blowout win. It didn't feel like things were going to go our way."

Former Auburn QB Jason Campbell
Former Auburn QB Jason CampbellRIC FELD/Associated Press

Instead of being asked about the thrill of winning the SEC Championship Game—one of the primary goals of every team before the season—Auburn's players and coaches were peppered with questions about its bowl fate and potentially being left out of the Orange Bowl, which served as the national championship game that season.

"That was hard to stomach," Chizik said. "If you go through the years and look at how many teams win the championship game undefeated, that's just hard to do. Very few teams have done it since then, and even before then."

Part of the reason Auburn was left out was its out-of-conference schedule, which featured games against Louisiana-Monroe, The Citadel and Louisiana Tech. This despite Auburn winning four games against teams that finished in the top 15 of the final BCS standings, while Oklahoma and USC combined to beat three.

2004 Final BCS Standings
TeamAPCoachesComputersBCS Avg.Top 15 Reg. Season Wins*
1. USC112.97702 (Virginia Tech, Cal)
2. Oklahoma221.96811 (Texas)
3. Auburn333.93314 (LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, Tennessee)
BCSGuru.com (* Top 15 in final BCS Standings)

"Oklahoma actually bought out Bowling Green's contract from us. So we played The Citadel instead, and Bowling Green is a tougher game than The Citadel," Eddins said. "Really, if you're going to compare Bowling Green to The Citadel, let's not even have this conversation. Why are we even having this talk? Let's just take both of those games out of the discussion."

Auburn topped Virginia Tech 16-13 in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, 2005. While the Tigers controlled it from the outset, the close score combined with USC's demolition of Oklahoma 55-19 the next night in the Orange Bowl sealed Auburn's fate.

It didn't get the split national title from The Associated Press, and it will go down as one of the best national championship teams that wasn't.

ED REINKE/Associated Press

The Aftermath

The legacy of the 2004 Tigers is twofold. It is the team that got snubbed, but also the team that had another door open seven years later.

The BCS stripped USC of the 2004 title in the aftermath of the Reggie Bush NCAA investigation, which gave Auburn hope that the team could be given the title that was just out of reach. That didn't happen. The 2004 national championship remains vacant, despite an undefeated SEC champ waiting for it.

Former Auburn RBs Carnell Williams (left) and Ronnie Brown (right)
Former Auburn RBs Carnell Williams (left) and Ronnie Brown (right)TODD J. VAN EMST/Associated Press

"I don't know if that group is really concerned about claiming a championship," Eddins said. "There are a lot of one-loss teams that claim national titles. There are guys I know that were on one- and two-loss teams and say 'well, we were BCS champs.' I say 'that's great, we were perfect.'" To a certain extent, saying we were perfect is a more exclusive club than being recognized as a BCS champ."

Auburn's players were a part of something special in 2004, and no piece of hardware can take that away.

"We all think of ourselves as one of the best teams to ever come through Auburn," Cox said. "To get to say that you were a part of that is something that, no title or ring is better than that."

For the coaches, it's about the players and what might have been.

"I feel bad for the kids," Chizik said. "I feel bad for the guys who should have had the shot at the time. On the outside looking in, considering the way the Orange Bowl played out, you can't help but think we would have made a better case and produced a much better game than that Orange Bowl turned out to be. This many years later, it was a great team with great players, who have some fantastic memories.

"To win a national championship, the bottom line is, you want to earn it. You want to get out on the field, play a down, play for it and let the best man win. If you don't have the opportunity to do that, I don't think competitive people have really any desire to wear that ring."

The 2004 Auburn Tigers: Dominant on offense, stifling on defense and SEC champs and poster child for postseason change.

An imperfect legacy for a perfect team.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.