Four years ago Auburn, playing in the nation's toughest conference, finished 12-0. Despite having an undefeated season that included a win in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship game, as well as a quarterback (Jason Campbell) and tailbacks (Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams) who have since become NFL starters, the Tigers were not invited to the Orange Bowl to play for the national title.
Instead, Southern California and Oklahoma, also both 12-0, were.
Auburn, we're sorry.
In the last five seasons two SEC schools have won three national championships. Neither of the pair were Auburn. And none of the three teams (LSU in '03 and '07, and Florida in '06) entered the BCS championship game unbeaten. The 2004 Tigers, the only SEC team to finish undefeated in the past ten seasons, never got that opportunity.
So you can understand if the tailgaters outside Jordan-Hare have little regard for pollsters. Or BCS rankings. You cannot win American Idol, after all, if Simon never hands you a yellow ticket.
Auburn acolytes — their legion could more than fill the stands at Legion Field — blame the media's fixation on glamour programs such as USC and Oklahoma for the snub. To a certain extent they are correct. Then, too, Auburn and other SEC schools do themselves no favor nationally by never leaving the Confederacy and by scheduling non-conference non-entities. In '04, for example, the Tigers hosted Louisiana-Monroe (31-0), The Citadel (33-3) and Louisiana Tech (52-7).
That strategy appears to be changing. This autumn Auburn, the favorite to win the SEC West, ventures to Morgantown, W.Va., for a legitimate Top 10 clash with the Mountaineers. It will be their first game outside an SEC state in six years. Likewise Georgia, the squad many pundits pick to win the national title (if not the SEC East), ventures outside the Peachtree State to play a non-conference game for the first time in 13 years.
It's contagious, and it's salubrious. Tennessee opens its season at a Pac-10 locale (emphasis on c-a-l, in no particular order) for the second year in a row. Alabama may not travel that far on I-20 to open against Clemson in Atlanta, but at least they'll be facing an ACC frontrunner.
By scheduling quality intersectional opponents, power-conference powerhouses take the vote out of the voters' hands and settle it on the field. They diminish the chance of a trio of unbeatens on Christmas Day.
Bully for you, Auburn. And Georgia. After all, you cannot get much deeper south, at least not latitudinally, than the site of this year's BCS Championship (Miami). For the SEC school who hopes to bring home the conference's third national titles in as many years, the best route there may be an indirect one … through Morgantown … or Tempe … or Pasadena.
CONFERENCE GAME OF THE YEAR
Nov. 1: Georgia vs. Florida at Jacksonville, Fla.
Will either the Dawgs or Gators be No. 1 when they meet on Nov. 1? If not, blame the schedule and not the talent. Georgia's Mark Richt has his most fearsome kennel of players since arriving in Athens eight years ago, while Urban Meyer's recruiting prowess begins bearing fruit in Year 4 in Gainesville.
This contest potentially features two Heisman Trophy winners: last year's (Tim Tebow), who could also be this year's, or a new name, Dawg tailback Knowshon Moreno, who gained a career-high 188 yards in Georgia's 42-30 victory here last year.
OTHER KEY CONFERENCE GAMES
Sept. 20: LSU at Auburn
Winner has the inside track at the SEC West title. Les Miles waited 'til the last second —literally — to upend the Tigers last October in Death Valley.
Sept. 20: Florida at Tennessee
Last September's 59-20 loss at The Swamp was Phil Fulmer's worst as well as the Vols' worst in 37 games against UF. Rocky Top would like to remind you, Gators, that all five OL's return from a unit that surrendered just four sacks all season as does tailback Arian Foster, who could leave Knoxville as the school's all-time leading rusher.
Oct. 11: LSU at Florida
Last two national champions meet in The Swamp. The difference will be under center, where UF boasts Tebow while LSU's top choice, Andrew Hatch, enters 2008 having thrown two career passes.
Oct. 11: Tennessee at Georgia
The Dawgs have been ranked higher the last two times these SEC East top-tier foes have met, and each time the Vols have won by at least 18 points.
Oct. 25: Georgia at LSU
In the coming four Saturdays, beginning tonight, the Dawgs must face arguably the three toughest foes in the SEC, and all away from Athens. If Matthew Stafford and the gang make it to Atlanta in December, they will have earned it.
Nov. 15: Georgia at Auburn
Surprise! Tigers have a killer defense (6th in nation in '07) and a quarterback that no one within a Charmin's toss of Toomer's Corner is thrilled about. Some Southern yarns never change.
NON-CONFERENCE GAME OF THE YEAR
Sept. 20: Georgia at Arizona State
Theme song of this game oughta be "Musta Got Lost" by J. Geils Band. Forget about the Dawgs traveling west of the Mississippi, much less out-of-state. Believe it or not, UGA has not played a non-conference road game, besides the biannual tussle at Georgia Tech, since 1995. In that same era, the Sun Devils have wilted one No. 1 in the September desert heat (Nebraska, '96) and nearly did a second (USC, '05). UGA VII's water dish needs a refill, boys.
OTHER KEY NON-CONFERENCE GAMES
Aug. 30: Appalachian State at LSU
Trophy lives: Last year's FBC national champs visit last year's FBS national champs.
Aug. 30: Clemson vs. Alabama at Atlanta
It's not that the Tide face three Tiger teams this season; it's that all three may enter the season ranked in the Top 10 (at least they avoided Mizzou). Last meeting? 1975, when Bear's Tide rolled 56-0.
Sept. 1: Tennessee at UCLA
Depending on your age, Vols set the needle to Side 2, Song 3 of Led Zeppelin IV (or just Track 7) to embark on a season for the second consecutive year. Last year, "Going to California" was when the levee began to break, as Cal won going away. This year? Vols will ruin Rick Neuheisel's homecoming debut.
Sept. 6: Miami at Florida
The Gators have lost six straight to the Hurricanes dating back to 1985. So no UF player was likely born the last time they beat UM. That changes today.
Sept. 13: Arkansas at Texas
This is one of the season's most anticipated intersectional battles … if the season is 2007.
Oct. 23: Auburn at West Virginia
Now this really is one of the season's most anticipated intersectional battles … Pat White and Noel Devine versus physical Auburn defense. "War Eagle!" chant has not been heard in a stadium outside the south since 2002, when Tigers lost 24-17 at Southern California.
Nov. 29: South Carolina at Clemson
Tommy Bowden's Tigers are a preseason darling, but the Ol' Ball Coach, he takes a Mr. Burns-like glee in playing Bowdens. Visitors have won last three in this Palmetto State rivalry.
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