Once upon a time, an undefeated SEC team got UCF treatment.

How’s that for a lede?

The 2004 Auburn team might not have been considered a borderline top-10 team like the Knights were in 2017, but they have something in common — they won every game they played and didn’t even get a chance to play for a national title. Both created debate about the system, and both made us wonder what that opportunity could have looked like.

Fortunately for you, that’ll be the last reference to UCF that you’ll see here. What we’re going to focus on today is the 2004 Auburn squad, headlined by Ronnie Brown, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Jason Campbell, and whether they were robbed a chance of playing for a national title. That opportunity went to Oklahoma and USC, who then proceeded to play in one of the most lopsided title games ever.

So, let’s dig into this ever-fascinating season:

Why was/is this a debate?

It was a popular topic of conversation at the time because it was essentially the BCS nightmare. That is, 3 Power 5 teams were undefeated at the conclusion of conference championship weekend (Auburn, Oklahoma and USC). Actually, including Urban Meyer’s Utah (Mountain West) squad and Boise State (WAC) , there were 5 unbeaten teams in Division IA for the first time since 1979.

(Not enough was made about the fact that Utah was undefeated with future No. 1 pick Alex Smith, and all that team did was smash 3 Power 5 foes in the regular season by an average of 22 points. Then Utah demolished Pitt 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. What a flawed system we once had.)

No matter what, an undefeated team was going to be left out of the BCS National Championship. With USC pegged as the preseason No. 1 — a spot the Trojans held from start to finish — the belief was that the other spot was to be decided between Auburn and Oklahoma. It was actually a bizarre year in which USC and Oklahoma started and finished the regular season at the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively.

Then there was Auburn, AKA the team that surprised the college football world by going from an unranked finish in 2003 to a team with a legitimate case to play for a national title in 2004. Brown and Williams took the sport by storm, and with coordinator Gene Chizik leading the No. 1 defense in America with Carlos Rogers and Junior Rosegreen, the Tigers steadily became a team that demanded national attention with moments like this.

For those reasons, it was obvious why it was a debate even before the BCS National Championship was played. What happened between USC and Oklahoma only fueled that discussion. The Trojans rolled to that aforementioned beatdown of the Sooners with a 55-19 laugher. Oklahoma’s dynamic duo of 2003 Heisman Trophy winner Jason White and record-setting freshman tailback Adrian Peterson couldn’t get anything going,

Auburn meanwhile, beat a top-10 Virginia Tech team 16-13 in the Sugar Bowl to complete the undefeated season. All that did was fuel the debate even more.

Had USC and Oklahoma played in a classic title game like the one we had the following year (Vince Young’s Texas team prevented the 3-peat), perhaps we’re not having this discussion. But that’s not what happened, and here we are.

What people said at the time

I tend to think that the discussion over this season would have multiplied had it occurred in our current 24-hour news cycle. That’s not to say it was lacking then, but we would have had all the charts, graphs and fire takes for this argument. (I could totally picture the contrarian take artists coming out with “why Utah would beat both Auburn and Oklahoma” columns.)

Discussion, as we know, was important in the BCS era. After all, AP and Coaches polls were part of the equation. Human polls actually mattered more for the BCS Standings that year than they did in 2003, when there was a split national championship. In 2003, a trio of 1-loss teams (Oklahoma, LSU and USC) dealt with a similar debate, but because the title game was so close — LSU beat Oklahoma 21-14 — there was a split national championship with USC also owning the honor.

So with the AP and Coaches Polls carrying so much weight, here’s what the voting was at the conclusion of the conference championships, all of which were won by these 3 teams:

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Going into the conference championships, Oklahoma was actually No. 1 in the computers. The Sooners then cruised to a 42-3 victory against unranked Colorado while Auburn beat No. 15 Tennessee 38-28.

Heading into the SEC Championship, there was a feeling that Auburn was going to need a loud statement to jump Oklahoma. Like, even Tommy Tuberville complained after the 21-13 Iron Bowl victory against 6-win Alabama that it shouldn’t be a knock against the Tigers among voters because that’s how that game was typically played (12 of the previous 13 Iron Bowls were decided by 2 scores or fewer). He could see the writing on the wall.

Let’s actually take a moment to appreciate that. It seems like the vast majority of coaches in that same spot — locked in at No. 3 with a conference championship to play — would have gone with the “we can only control what we can control, and we’ll let the chips fall as they may.” Kudos to Tuberville for recognizing that in a system so dependent on public perception, he needed to do everything in his power to shape it.

OK, back to that SEC Championship against Tennessee. I rewatched parts of that game and picked up on a few interesting details (the “seize the moment” intro with Bo Jackson and Peyton Manning was absolutely electric).

In the middle of the game on the CBS broadcast, they went to an update from the USC-UCLA game (not a conference championship) to show the Bruins scoring to get within a touchdown in the third quarter. Back in the studio, Tim Brando said, “Ya ever notice, fellas, that no one ever questions if USC is No. 1, only whether Oklahoma is No. 2 or Auburn? Interesting, isn’t it?”

(At the time, yes, that was an interesting point. Brando surely wouldn’t have said that if he had a crystal ball to see how the national championship played out, but it was worth discussing considering USC had 3 wins vs. teams that were ranked in that current AP Top 25, and the Trojans were struggling against a 6-win team.)

When they came back from the break, Todd Blackledge brought up an interesting theory he had about USC. He referenced how public opinion favored the Trojans so much because they were the team who many felt was unfairly left out of the BCS National Championship the previous year. And with all the talent they returned with Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White, it would have probably felt challenging not to have USC at No. 1.

If you read between the lines, it sounded like Blackledge and Verne Lundquist both agreed that Auburn deserved one of those top 2 spots. Granted, that was the 5th time they had Auburn as the CBS game. Obviously they got more looks at the Tigers than USC or Oklahoma.

They mentioned the fact that Oklahoma was ahead of Auburn AND USC in the computer rankings, which created the sense that the Tigers needed to do something that would “jump” the Sooners, who didn’t kick off until the second half of the SEC Championship had started.

Unfortunately for Auburn, a 10-point win against Tennessee wasn’t deemed a loud enough closing argument.

The worst take you can have about this debate

It’s interesting. Even though we have the knowledge of USC’s blowout of Oklahoma and that it was considered a college football dynasty, there’s a take about the Trojans that I cannot accept.

“It didn’t matter if it was Oklahoma or Auburn because USC would have destroyed anyone that year.”

It’s true that Tuberville admitted during the BCS National Championship game that it would have been awfully difficult to beat a team like USC with giving offensive coordinator Norm Chow a month to prepare. The Trojans would have been the favorites against Auburn, for sure.

But would it have been a blowout? I don’t think so.

I say that for a few reasons. One is that while USC was indeed a force with talent galore, it had 2 matchups all year against top-10 scoring defenses. That yielded a 24-point showing against Virginia Tech (No. 2 defense) and a 23-point showing against California (No. 8 defense). In the game against Cal, which was the Pac-12’s only non-USC defense that ranked in the top 30 nationally, Aaron Rodgers and the Golden Bears actually out-gained USC 424-205.

Auburn, as you recall, had the No. 1 unit in America. In fact, the SEC Championship against Tennessee marked the first time all year that anyone hit 21 points against the Tigers. The odds of USC putting up 50 like it did on Oklahoma were low.

And take this for what it is, but a year after this season, Chizik was the defensive coordinator on that Texas team that beat USC in that classic thriller (Texas still allowed 38 points to USC but came out prepared and had that big 4th down stop late on White to set up Young’s heroics).

So what do I think the final score would’ve been? My guess is USC wins 21-14.

Some might say that USC would have rolled Auburn because we saw the teams play in 2002 and in 2003. Who knows how much the Trojans’ 23-0 beatdown at Jordan-Hare to kick off the 2003 season played a part in not wanting to see that matchup decide the 2004 title game, but it shouldn’t have.

Let’s not forget that while USC was clearly the better team those years, Auburn changed offenses in 2004. Al Borges came from Indiana and began utilizing the 2-back system. That’s why Brown and Williams took off together, and it allowed Campbell to become a whole lot more confident and efficient (Campbell finished 7th in the Heisman voting that year).

But if we’re talking about a game decided by a touchdown like that, I still would have put my faith in Leinart to find a way. He made a habit of doing that even on days when he didn’t have his best fastball.

Auburn would have been a tougher matchup for USC than Oklahoma. With that defense, it would have had a much better chance of not getting run off the field by those incredible USC athletes. Does that mean the Tigers deserved to be there? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Thing I didn’t know/forgot until revisiting this

Freshman Adrian Peterson was truly insane. I forgot just how insane he was. Besides breaking basically every NCAA freshman rushing record, how he did it was something to behold.

Peterson made such a habit of keeping his balance amidst some sort of spinning, back to the end zone sequence … and then proceeding to take it to the house. Nobody did that better than Peterson. No wonder he finished 2nd in the Heisman voting.

You could absolutely make the case that Peterson, who finished the year with 1,925 rushing yards and 15 scores, deserved the Heisman over Leinart. Keep in mind this was at a time when we had never even seen a sophomore win the award, much less a true freshman. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Peterson had been a year older, he would have become the first sophomore Heisman winner (Tim Tebow took that title 3 years later).

The other thing I forgot was something I know Auburn fans will appreciate. “JetGate.” That’s right. JetGate.

How could I forget that Auburn brass got caught flying to meet with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino a day before the 2003 Iron Bowl? Yikes, did Auburn blow that. Well, it could have been much worse.

“Me and (Petrino) had a good conversation the Thanksgiving after what happened,” Tuberville recalled (via AL.com). “He called and apologized. And I just basically told him, ‘Bobby, you just don’t do that in this profession. If you would’ve called me and said, ‘Listen, Tommy, you got problems. They’re calling me.’ Of course, had he done that, I would’ve been gone in 2003 because the protocol would’ve been broken.”

When I see a comment like that, my brain immediately goes, “SLIDING DOORS! SLIDING DOORS!”

Tuberville always used to say that Alabama hired Nick Saban because of him. It was Tuberville who won 6 consecutive Iron Bowls at Auburn from 2002-07. But at the time when Auburn infamously courted Petrino, that streak was only at 2. Let’s say either scenario played out. That is, Petrino accepted the job or Tuberville was offended that other coaches were being interviewed as his replacement and he left after the 2003 season.

For starters, the 2004 Auburn season never happens. Brown and Williams both likely bolt for the NFL, and frankly, the SEC’s best running back duo of all-time (for my money), wouldn’t have stayed. It was Tuberville’s decision to hire Borges to run this 2-back system that really got Brown and Williams on board. As a result, Campbell doesn’t take that step and you can bet even if those defensive weapons had stayed, they wouldn’t have been No. 1 in America.

That’s the direct sliding door. The more indirect one stemmed from Tuberville’s belief that his dominance of Alabama was what led to Saban coming to Tuscaloosa. Five consecutive years of losses to Auburn (and 6 total in that streak) resulted in Alabama making its splashiest hire ever. The Crimson Tide ponied up $32 million for 8 years to lure Saban from the Miami Dolphins. Had Tuberville left and it had been a more even battle with Petrino or whoever his successor was — and not 5 consecutive Auburn victories at the time the decision was made after the 2006 season — would Alabama have been that desperate? I don’t know. Maybe.

I’ll just be thankful that Tuberville gave me a sliding door that kept my brain busy all afternoon.

Where do I stand on the debate?

Full disclosure here.

I fully expected to look back on this and bang the drum for Auburn. Why? A couple years ago, we did “G.O.A.T. Week” and I did a story on how Brown and Williams became the best SEC running back duo of all-time. I enjoyed every second of putting that together. Those guys and Tuberville were so generous with their time, and I came away with a new appreciation for that 2004 Auburn team.

But if I had a vote back then for No. 2, here’s what I would have looked at (all of these are post-conference championship weekend):

  • Power 5 opponents faced
    • Oklahoma: 10
    • Auburn: 9
  • Average margin of victory (pre-bowl)
    • Oklahoma +21.3
    • Auburn +22.3
  • Wins vs. teams ranked in AP Top 25 after conference championships
    • Oklahoma: 3
    • Auburn: 4
  • Avg. margin of victory in those games
    • Oklahoma: +11.3
    • Auburn: +13.3
  • Wins vs. Power 5 bowl teams after conference championships
    • Oklahoma: 5
    • Auburn: 5
  • Avg. margin of victory in those games
    • Oklahoma: +15.2
    • Auburn: +12.2

What does that show me? It’s essentially a tie.

Here’s the thing, though. Auburn, for whatever reason, didn’t have a Power 5 team in nonconference play that year. The nonconference slate that year was Louisiana-Monroe, The Citadel (Division I-AA) and Louisiana Tech. Oklahoma didn’t face some top-10 Virginia Tech team like USC did, but it at least had Oregon on the schedule in nonconference play.

Rewarding Auburn’s easy nonconference path would have felt wrong. And fair or not, but it would have been hard to ignore Auburn’s recent struggles in Power 5 nonconference games. From 2001-03, Auburn was 1-4 in such games, including a 2003 season in which it started off as the No. 6 team in the country and got beat by a combined 40-3 in nonconference games against USC and Georgia Tech.

Auburn was going to have to be a solid notch above Oklahoma to earn that national championship bid. Part of that was because the Tigers hadn’t finished in the top 10 in 10 years compared to Oklahoma, the reigning runner-up, but part of that I believe was because of the recent nonconference struggles.

Imagine this unfolding with a BCS system in 2020. Clemson and Ohio State are the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams entering 2020, assuming nothing drastic changes. Picture them going undefeated in conferences that look similar in strength to the Big 12. Texas is also undefeated with a similar résumé as Ohio State. But let’s say the Longhorns, who lost a September nonconference game each of the past 7 years, only play Rice, North Texas and The Citadel. There’s no way they’re playing for a national championship instead of Clemson or Ohio State.

I’m sure that’s how plenty of people felt about Auburn. In hindsight, yes, the lopsided national championship proved that Auburn would have given USC a better game than Oklahoma. But more deserving to make it there? I’m not quite on board with that.

What I am on board with is that we finally ditched that system.