Sports column: Auburn makes case for change

By Mike Szwaja

The last week of July has to be a fun week for college football beat writers and coaches. During that week, they reach into their bottom desk drawers, pull out their crystal balls and rank the top 25 college football teams for the upcoming season.

Yeah, big deal. The preseason polls mean nothing, right? Try telling that to the Auburn Tigers.

Auburn found itself ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP Poll and 18 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. An article breaking down each of the top 25 teams read, “Aurbun is a sleeper in the SEC West.”

A sleeper? Does a sleeper return a senior, 6-foot-5, 223-pound quarterback with a great arm and good mobility like Jason Campbell? Does a sleeper return the nation’s best running-back duo in Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams – two sure-fire, top-10 NFL draft picks come April? Does a sleeper return a future Jim Thorpe Award-winning corner like Carlos Rogers?

According to the voters in the nation’s two most important college football polls, Auburn’s mix of talented and experienced players made the team nothing more than a sleeper.

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The Tigers roared their way through a tough conference schedule and finished 12-0.

What happened? Perhaps those voters were sleeping while they filled out those preseason polls. Whatever, it didn’t matter, the Tigers were going to the Orange Bowl to play for the BCS National Championship.

Wait, what? USC and Oklahoma finished 12-0, too? They’re going to the Orange Bowl? What about Auburn? Who are they going to play? Twice-beaten Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl? What? When do the Tigers get their chance to raise that crystal football?

They don’t?

I see. Well, why USC and Oklahoma over the Tigers? Because the computers say so? Oh, OK, I guess if the computers say so …

So many questions to answer, and in one way or another, you can answer all of those questions by mentioning something about the preseason polls. Two years ago, the NCAA and the BCS were becoming increasingly worried about teams running up scores in an effort to improve their BCS rankings.

It was at that point that the NCAA and the BCS put a stronger emphasis on the two major polls and de-emphasized things like margin of victory and strength of schedule. End result: The BCS standings are basically identical to the standings in both polls.

Those late-July preseason polls had USC at No. 1 and Oklahoma at No. 2, which simply meant if those two teams went undefeated, they would play in the Orange Bowl. That’s exactly what happened, so the decision should have been an easy one.

But nobody planned on having more than two undefeated teams – the Tigers are the first undefeated team from a BCS conference to be left out of the BCS title game. So, how come they got the shaft?


If I were a voter and ranked USC and Oklahoma No. 1 and No. 2 in my preseason poll – and they both finished undefeated – I know I would feel pretty good about myself. It would be tough to put a team I had ranked No.18 before the season ahead of a team I initially ranked one or two. That’s exactly how the voters had to feel when Auburn finished on the outside looking in. Sad, but true.

That said, the Tigers’ non-conference schedule – The Citadel, Louisiana Monroe and Louisiana Tech – did nothing to help the cause. But they still beat LSU, won at Alabama, handled Georgia easily and defeated Tennessee twice – once on the road, and once in Atlanta in the SEC Championship game.

The Tigers have had quite the season, and it’s a shame they won’t have a chance to call themselves the best team in college football when the dust settles. The Tigers’ story makes the strongest case yet that something in the BCS, and maybe even the poll system, needs to change.

I once heard Bobby Bowden praising the bowl system because half the teams out there finish their season with wins. Nice thought, Bobby, but I wonder what the coach would say if he were in Tommy Tuberville’s shoes today. Would he rather finish with a win, a 13-0 record and visions of “what if…” dancing in his head? Or would he rather go out, win or lose, competing for the distinction of being called the best team in the land?

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communication. He can be reached at [email protected].