SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — One lonely national title. That’s all Auburn has, a good dozen fewer than hated rival Alabama claims a few hours away, to the Tigers’ enduring chagrin.
That hardly tells the whole story, though. The top-ranked Tigers, who were last crowned champs in 1957, have been waiting ever since for the win-and-you’re-in shot at the national title that comes Monday night against No. 2 Oregon.
They’ve come close several tantalizing times. And these Auburn players carry a little extra burden from their predecessors as a result.
“I tell them all the time so many other players are living through them,” said Travis Williams, a linebacker for the 2004 team that went 13-0 and finished No. 2. “And the good thing is they take it on their shoulders and they really want to do it for the guys that came before them.”
In the modern era, those guys come from that 2004 team and the 1983 group that was leapfrogged when No. 5 Miami catapulted to the top after Auburn was the only team ahead of the Hurricanes to win its bowl game. Even Terry Bowden’s 1993 group can nurse some claim after going 11-0 while on NCAA probation and ineligible for the postseason.
“I think there are Auburn people who feel snakebit, but if you feel snakebit, you’re looking for excuses,” former Auburn athletic director David Housel said. “The only thing you can worry about is what you can influence, and there’s certain factors you can’t influence. I wouldn’t say snakebit, I would say unfortunate would be a better term.”
Auburn only claims titles bestowed by the wire services, and now the BCS, which leaves the 1957 team selected No. 1 by The Associated Press and others standing alone. Some groups of varying legitimacy have crowned eight Tigers teams.
The most recent, and now most famous, near-miss came six years ago. Tommy Tuberville’s loaded Tigers went 13-0 but were relegated to the Sugar Bowl while Southern California routed Oklahoma 55-19 for the BCS title since vacated due to NCAA violations.
A 16-13 win over Virginia Tech merely let Auburn keep its argument going in perpetuity.
“I remember it just like it was yesterday,” recalls Williams, now a graduate assistant for his alma mater. “We were glued to the TV every week to see if we were going to be 1 or 2 and have a chance to fight for it. It was disappointing but at the end of the day we won every game that was on our schedule. We knew we were probably one of the best teams that ever came through Auburn, if not the best. That year we would have given USC a run for their money.”
Four players from that team were first-round picks in the following NFL draft — cornerback Carlos Rogers, quarterback Jason Campbell and running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. Run for their money? Heck, Williams still feels confident in the outcome of an Auburn-USC matchup, though he’ll never get to prove it.
“We’d have won,” he insists. “I tell everybody we had a mini-NFL team, and it was almost scary. We went into every game expecting to win. It wasn’t hoping. It wasn’t waiting on another player to do it. Any player could have done it, from our running backs to our quarterbacks to our receivers and then the No. 1 defense. We expected to win every game.”
The Tigers did beat three Top 10 teams but struggled to put away unranked Alabama at the end, which certainly didn’t help with three teams sporting such strong claims of worthiness.
—1983. The third-ranked Tigers managed to edge No. 8 Michigan 9-7 in the Sugar Bowl, while Miami beat top-ranked Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl, No. 2 Texas lost in the Cotton Bowl and No. 4 Illinois fell in the Rose.
Howard Schnellenberger’s Hurricanes vaulted to the top with a team led by quarterback Bernie Kosar. Nebraska finished No. 2, while Auburn stayed put.
The New York Times was among 15 groups crowning that Auburn team, which included a sophomore running back named Bo Jackson and eight first-team All-Southeastern Conference picks.
“You could have said that team was named national champion,” Housel said. “I think Miami did a heck of a job promoting the fact that if you beat No. 1, you ought to be No. 1. They had a hell of a game ... Nebraska went for two and didn’t make it, and Miami beat No. 1 so they go to No.1. If you’re from Auburn, you’d argue that. And if we’d been more impressive in our win over Michigan, we might have been No. 1, but it just didn’t happen.
“Based on strength of schedule and performance throughout the year, that 1983 team deserved to be national champion.”
The Tigers did beat four teams ranked in the top 8 in their final five games, but lost to then-No. 3 Texas in Game 2 to finish 11-1.
—1993. Bowden’s first Auburn team opened the season unranked and largely unnoticed after the program was slammed with NCAA sanctions for violations during Pat Dye’s tenure. The Tigers won four games by four points or less and finished, appropriately, fourth in the rankings.
A handful of mostly obscure organizations gave the title to Auburn, which was coming off two five-win seasons.
—1958. The Tigers followed up their national championship season by going 9-0-1 with only a 7-all tie with Georgia Tech in Game 3 marring a perfect record.
Coach Shug Jordan’s team allowed only 62 points and also finished at No. 4.
“I think ‘58 was probably a better football team than ‘57,” said Kenny Howard, the Tigers’ trainer from 1949-75 and a close friend of the late Jordan. “I think we probably had better personnel then.”
Then again, the Tigers probably didn’t figure it would be another half-century before the opportunity arose again to win a title on the field.
“It’s amazing that where football means so much to a state and a university ... that you come up and don’t have the opportunity to be No. 1 again,” Howard said.
There were also the unbeaten teams in 1913 and 1914, the latter of which outscored opponents 193-0.
Meanwhile, the rival Tide captured its seventh AP national title and eighth of the poll era last season.
Left tackle Lee Ziemba said the message from former Auburn players wanting to close the gap a bit is loud and clear.
“I’ve heard from a lot of them, and a lot of them said the same thing: Take advantage of the opportunity,” Ziemba said. “This chance doesn’t come around for very many people very often.”
Auburn fans know that well.