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Auburn Is Determined to Pick Its Spot

Times Staff Writer

Win, whine. Win, whine.

That’s the order of the bowl championship series universe, a place where teams feel compelled to not only produce victories but to justify their significance as well.

So it was that the Auburn Tigers didn’t stop competing Saturday, even after their 21-13 victory over Alabama completed a perfect run through the Southeastern Conference regular season and raised their overall record to 11-0. They have their sights set on the Orange Bowl, and they practically took offense to any notion that they don’t deserve either of the top two spots in the BCS rankings it takes to get there.

“Should be the top one,” Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville said. “But we’ll take two.”

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They’ll be No. 3, behind USC and Oklahoma, when the next BCS rankings come out Monday. And they won’t like it.

“We want to play in the Orange Bowl,” defensive end Stanley McClover said. “We’re the right team to play in the Orange Bowl.”

First they must play in the SEC championship game against Tennessee on Dec. 4. If they win that it still might not be enough to hop into the top spot if USC and Oklahoma win the rest of their games convincingly. Barring a loss by either of those teams, Auburn’s only other hope is to look so impressive that the media and coaches will raise them in their polls. The Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls count for two-thirds of the BCS rankings; a mixture of computer rankings accounts for the other third.

Saturday’s eight-point victory against the unranked Crimson Tide won’t help them in the beauty-pageant element of the system. Of course, most of the voters haven’t been in the state of Alabama the week of the Iron Bowl, perhaps college football’s most intense rivalry.

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“It’s one of those games where you’d rather not people watch it for style points,” Tuberville said. “Because this is not a style-point game. This is one of those slobber-knockers on both sides.”

Alabama pulled out all of the stops, as the state’s favorite adopted son, former Crimson Tide quarterback Joe Namath, trotted out on the field to join the seniors playing their final home game. Then the giant screen showed a montage of Alabama lore, laced with the obligatory shots of Bear Bryant as the legendary coach’s distinctive drawl poured out of the loudspeakers at the other end of the field.

The cheers by ‘Bama fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium grew louder and more intimidating.

At first, the Tigers seemed overwhelmed by it all. They stayed on the conservative pages of the playbook, with a series of ineffective screens and short passes against the nation’s second-ranked defense. The players seemed too intent on breaking the game open every time they touched the ball rather than simply running straight ahead.

It resulted in a total of minus-four yards in the first quarter.

Alabama’s offense wasn’t too impressive either. But three big plays put the Crimson Tide in prime scoring position.

In the first half, Alabama made five trips into Auburn territory -- reaching the red zone three times on a 40-yard pass, a 40-yard punt return and an interception -- and had only six points to show for it.

That was still better than Auburn’s production, which suffered its final low moment when John Vaughn’s 21-yard field goal attempt clanged off the left goal post as the half ended.

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But in the second half Auburn looked more like the offense that scored at least 30 points eight times this season. On the Tigers’ first three possessions of the third quarter, they scored on a five-yard run by Carnell Williams, a 32-yard pass from Jason Campbell to Courtney Taylor and a two-yard run by Ronnie Brown.

By the time Alabama (6-5, 3-5 SEC) finally scored a touchdown, on an 18-yard pass from Spencer Pennington to D.J. Hall with 1:26 remaining in the game, it was too late. Auburn recovered the ensuing on-side kick, and it was all over but the campaigning.

It’s not their fault the system forces them to speak on their own behalf.

Among the Auburn talking points: The Tigers became the sixth team to go 8-0 in the SEC since the conference began divisional play in 1992. Three of the previous five teams (Tennessee in 1998, Florida in 1996 and Alabama in 1992 ) went on to win the national championship.

Fuel for the critics: A nonconference schedule against Louisiana Monroe, The Citadel and Louisiana Tech.

All the Tigers have done is win every game they played, including this tough one.

“Both teams were very physical, both teams made plays,” Tuberville said. “Fortunately for us, we came out on top. Hopefully the voters will look at that.

“But we’ll have another opportunity to audition here in a couple of weeks.”

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And here you thought it was a football season, not a casting call.


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