We’ll always have Auburn (2004).

As any SEC fan is aware, one of the rallying cries for a D-1 football playoff is “Remember Auburn (2004)!” I agree it’s an example worth remembering, but for a different reason.

Skipping over the points that (1) I’m not necessarily choked up about Auburn getting screwed over in something; (2) it’s not a given that Auburn would have been particularly successful in a playoff setting that year (remember that the Tigers just got by Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl that season); (3) Auburn still would have had to play for the MNC against a Southern Cal team that would have had a month to prepare; and (4) given all of the above, not playing in the BCS title game was the best thing that could have happened to Tubs and Auburn’s players and fans, who can all go to their graves playing the “what if” game (and Auburn supporters, you can spare me the “we had just as good a backfield as USC did” line – it wasn’t, as Auburn managed to go 8-5 the year before with the same stellar backfield, Exhibit #1 in the argument against labelling Tubs a coaching genius), I do think there’s a valid argument to make that the system wasn’t, and still isn’t, set up to treat schools fairly in making sure that we see the best teams in place by season’s end.

But while I agree that a problem existed (and still does), I don’t think playoff advocates are looking for a cure in the right place, at least initially. The problem for Auburn in 2004 didn’t start with the absence of a playoff, it started with the preseason polls.

In 2004, USC and Oklahoma ran 1 and 2 wire to wire, from the first polls to the MNC game. Auburn was ranked 17 in the first AP poll and 18 in the first USA Today poll. That’s an enormous obstacle to overcome. And as good a season as they enjoyed, the Tigers never could.

Here’s how Auburn rose through the polls, week by week:

  1. 17 AP; 18 USA Today
  2. same
  3. 18 AP; 19 USA Today (Auburn won its opener against Louisiana Monroe and dropped in the polls)
  4. 14 AP; 15 USA Today (Auburn beat MSU)
  5. 9 AP; 10 USA Today (Auburn beat #4 LSU)
  6. 8 AP; 9 USA Today (Auburn beat The Citadel)
  7. 6 AP; 6 USA Today (Auburn beat #8 Tennessee)
  8. 4 AP; 4 USA Today (Auburn beat Louisiana Tech)
  9. 3 AP; 4 USA Today (Auburn beat Kentucky Arkansas; gets its first first place votes from pollsters)
  10. 3 AP; 4 USA Today (Auburn beat Kentucky)
  11. 3 AP; 3 USA Today (Auburn beat Mississippi)

Auburn obviously started out in the polls woefully underrated. No doubt some of that was the result of the Tigers being serious underachievers in the prior season (they were The Sporting News’ preseason #1 in 2003). But that’s the result of perception, not the reality of the quality of the team in 2004.

Waiting to start the polls until week 6 or 7 of the season would have allowed the voters to form a much more objective – at least objective for them – picture of the relative merits of all of the top teams, uncolored by preseason expectations. Going into the seventh week of 2004, Auburn had knocked off the #4 and #8 schools in the country. To that point, I don’t think another team could make a similar claim.

Certainly Oklahoma couldn’t. One of the great myths about why Auburn didn’t get the higher ranking in the end was because of alleged shortcomings of its schedule. But if you compare its schedule with that of Oklahoma’s, it’s hard to see why that’s a compelling argument. By season’s end, Auburn beat three teams ranked in the top 10 at the time the games were played. Oklahoma beat one such team.

Here’s Oklahoma’s early schedule from 2004: Bowling Green, Houston, Oregon (down year for the Ducks), off week, Texas Tech (unranked) and Texas (#5, but to that point, Stoops had owned Mack Brown). It’s not the worst schedule I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly not superior to Auburn’s from that year. Given the fact that through week 7, Auburn had those two wins against top 10 opponents, isn’t it likely that if the first polls had come out then, there would have been a lot of buildup in the media towards ranking the Tigers more highly than they actually were – higher than Oklahoma?

I’ve never really understood the point to releasing an official poll before the college football season starts. Look at a school like Florida this year. The defending national champs lose nine defensive starters and their starting quarterback, yet they’re likely to start off ranked in the top 10. This isn’t to say they’ll be a lousy team, or that they’re highly overrated, but simply how in the hell does anyone have a clue how good the Gators are compared to other schools right now?

If it’s just a game that we let the media play, that’s stupid. In fact, it’s more than stupid, since the polls are a significant factor in the BCS rankings. It shouldn’t be handled that way. And holding the polls back until after the sixth or seventh weeks of the season wouldn’t stop the media from having a good time speculating on where everyone would be ranked in the first polls. That’s already what happens with the BCS rankings.

In short, the lesson I take from ‘04 is that preseason polls aren’t helpful to sorting out the best teams in a given season. And since every post season proposal I’ve seen considered recently would continue to rely on the polls (through the BCS rankings) to pick and seed the teams in the playoffs, any new format, “plus one” or otherwise, isn’t going to fix that flaw.

Personally, I’d wait until mid-October to publish the first polls. By then, every top 25 school should have played at least one significant opponent, which would give the voters a better handle on the relative merits of the top teams. It’s a problem that invites a pretty simple solution. Where’s Bernie Machen when I need him?

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28 Comments

Filed under BCS/Playoffs, College Football

28 responses to “We’ll always have Auburn (2004).

  1. kckd

    You still don’t get this. I nor any UGA fan is worried about Auburn getting screwed. It’s the fact that if it could happen to Auburn, it could happen to UGA.

    And, take your poll midseason, and maybe it happens to OU. To which I say, if it can happen to OU, it can happen to UGA.

    The poll thing solves nothing. We know OU wasn’t up to the MNC game because they played in it, and if they hadn’t we wouldn’t know it.

  2. What don’t I get, kckd? Auburn’s just an example of the problem. If it’s good enough to use as a rallying cry for a four team playoff, I don’t see why it’s not good enough to use to make my point.

    As for the rest of your comment, whatever “it” is that would have happened to Oklahoma, at least it would have been based on what occurred during the season, instead of having preseason misconceptions filtered in unfairly. That sure seems a lot fairer to me. As it should to the schools that are on the bubble of making whatever form of playoff gains acceptance.

    Needless to say, I disagree with your conclusion.

  3. Mark

    Of course, “the media” aren’t a factor in the BCS formula anymore, except for a few computer polls run by news outlets.

  4. True, but if you don’t think some of the voters aren’t influenced by what they hear and read, especially if there’s a steady drumbeat…

  5. kckd

    My point is you again are dabbling in crap that don’t matter. It won’t solve the problem cause it IS NOT the problem.

    This is no different than after USC not going in 2003, they made the computer thing a lesser factor.

    It still leaves you with three teams with good arguments and only two spots.

    The OU fans would’ve fought just as hard and argued just as long as AU. And no one would’ve said it’s any more fair because we didn’t take a poll until half way through.

    • terry Bowden

      OU loss their championship game 35 to 7 and played for National champ in 2003. And Auburn goes 13-0 in the SEC and can not play USC for National Champ. Florida has won two NC 12-1 and Auburn beat them both times. Give me a break. Auburn is not in the good old boys football club that keeps recycling the same old USC and OU of the world no matter what the record.

      When Florida won the NC every sports writer wrote how hard it was for poor Florida to go undefeated in SEC . Auburn goes 13-0 every writer wrote how weak the SEC was in 2004 another lie. It took five years before an another team did it in 2009 the NC Alabama. Any time a team in the SEC goes undefeated they should play for a NC. Auburn and college football was rob in 2004 . College football denied to see a fresh new team in Auburn who has not played for a NC in fifty years. For a weak OU team beat in the fifteen minutes of the game. Thanks to the good old boy football club. I hope they enjoyed watching a 2004 boring NC game that was over in the first half.

  6. I wasn’t trying to solve your problem.

    I’m simply asserting that early polls often lead to bad results – and that won’t necessarily change with a playoff. You honestly think starting the polls during the season isn’t fairer and won’t have an impact on the postseason?

    As for what Auburn or Oklahoma fans would have thought of the results, who cares? I would expect partisan fans of any school to bitch no matter what the process is. The issue for me with this post is what can be done with the polls to provide a better representation of how the teams played in a given season.

  7. kckd

    Senator, starting polls later???? Explain to me one season where it would have done anything significant.

    Don’t bring up Auburn, because you are smart enough to know, if Auburn goes to that championship game then OU has just as valid an argument as Auburn did.

    You don’t have the hindsight ability to know what OU would’ve done. The sad part is, we’re tinkering with the engine because the car’s not starting here, and the gas tank is empty.

  8. Tenn_Dawg

    I like the four team format as long as it never gets expanded. The regular season is still relative because to make the four you would have to be undefeated or at a mimium a highly ranked one loss team. The conference championships are still meaningful because winning those increases your chances of getting a spot. The only really weird thing that could happening is for example UGA goes undefeated and plays in the SECCG against a two-three loss west team say AU. UGA losses knocking them out of the four team draw. Tennesse a team UGA barely beat earlier in the year moves into one of the spots b/c UGA was its only loss and they are highly ranked. UT is in and has the opportunity to win the NC without winning its conference division much less it’s conference championship. But then again it puts importance on all games so you better just win if you want a shot. At least it give multiple undefeated teams a shot if they are out there. Senator….speaking of Auburn how bout the problems they are having with their ’07 recruiting class. Thats too bad!!!!

  9. KG

    How did Auburn get to play Kentucky twice in a season? I think they had to have paid someone off to get that!

    Teams are usually ranked higher in the preseason if they have recognized skill or big name players returning. If your returnees are the offensive line or a group (like a defense) you may not get the hype. If you return a QB, big time RB or some spectacular WR then you are going to get some love from the press (proportionate to the love you got in the press the previous year).

    For example Georgia returns a QB who had a very good bowl game against VT which followed a quality game against GT but with all the questions about who will catch the ball and the lack of a “main” running back will hurt their preseason buzz. Personally I think this will be a rebuilding year for Richt anyways.

  10. fsudirectory

    Lol how did you decide to write this article now bout Auburn 2004? Thats like me writing one about when Miami got screwed against Ohio State. LOL. But anyways at least the Gators represented for the SEC this year to show those asses at the BCS that the SEC cant be messed with

    game day shirts

  11. KG, thanks for catching my error.

    I think there are a variety of reasons why teams get overranked and underranked in the preseason. You cite some good ones in your response.

    But sometimes a team is the victim of its immediate past, which I think was the case to some extent with Auburn in ’04.

    And sometimes the media just loves a team for no apparent reason, like Notre Dame.

  12. “Lol how did you decide to write this article now bout Auburn 2004? ”

    Blame Mike Slive. It’s kinda like that line from Godfather III: “Just when I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in.” ;)

  13. Pingback: Some more thoughts on preseason polls (without mentioning Auburn) « Get The Picture

  14. Pingback: DawgsOnline » Delaying polls - why I’m not sold on the idea

  15. “Senator….speaking of Auburn how bout the problems they are having with their ‘07 recruiting class. Thats too bad!!!!”

    The incredible shrinking class… maybe Auburn is trying to keep up with the Ivy League academically. Or maybe Tubs needs to analyze his recruits a little more carefully.

  16. SOUTHERLANDDAWG

    I just want to know how OU has just as good of an argument as AU in ’04 if AU made it to the NC. Auburn went undefeated & won the SEC championship. OU didn’t. They got beat by Kansas State in the Big 12 title game. If you’re not the best in your conferance then how can you play in a game that determines the best in the country?

  17. SD, I think you’ve got your seasons mixed up. Oklahoma crushed Colorado in the Big 12 CCG that year, so the Sooners were an undefeated conference champ, too.

  18. matt demouy

    just go by which teams are better and you have the problem solved. The media did control which teams went. They failed to build up Auburn like they should have. They wanted OU to go because they had “once in a lifetime” running back adrian p. ( as the media called him) , Ou had the Hiesman winner QB.. I cant even remeber his name? he sucked and is he in the NFL.? did he even get drafted? If you let NFL retired NFL coaches or a non biased group of college coaches pick the best teams from 2004 all of them would have picked USC vs. AUBURN . period. look at the talent Auburn had. It was a joke.. on offense and defense.. This was a case of OU going because the Media wanted OU to go.

  19. skydye

    It’s sad Auburn was clearly the better team that year, and when u look at v tech that USC barely beat the beginning of the year like 18-9 or something… Look at the sugar bowl, espn gave auburn crap for barely beating them after they had a full year to mature. This was V techs only losses that year.

  20. skydye

    espn has had a bias against auburn for sometime now not sure why…..

  21. hambone44

    Just happend to read these older archives & don’t know if anyone realized southerlandawg’s point about Oklahoma getting killed in the big 12 champ. game & still getting to play for the nc the same year. I believe you were splitting hairs on that one KcKd. Not that anyone is ever going to read this.

  22. Micah Dowling

    I see that the fact that Auburn was ranked #2 going into the final game of the season was neatly left out.

  23. Karlore (don't ask)

    I can’t believe that happened that year, i’m a true AUBURN fan and i have to disagree with the BCS dickheads saying that AUB didn’t deserve to be in that NCAA title game vs. USC.
    I know three teams went undefeated that year, but why did we get kicked out of it.
    USC kicked Oklahoma’s A$$ in the game.
    I wonder what if they put us in the game, would we have a chance, would we win. I guess we’ll never know!
    I’m so bummed when I heard Tommy Tuberville resighned from being the head coach for the greatest team in the world!!!
    I’ll Miss You, Tubbs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111

  24. James

    I don’t see how you can say that Auburn’s backfield was not better than USC’s. Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams have both had better pro careers than Reggie Bush. Jason Campbell has also made a much better pro QB that Matt Leinart, who has turned out to be a complete bust.

  25. man123

    Man NFL career and when they were drafted shows they were better players on the Auburn team….lets name a few, Jay Ratliff, Pro Bowl nose tackle. Quentin Grooves, Stanley McClover, both starting defensive ends. Will Herring, Junior Rosegreen both play for the Seahawks, lets see the half o line plays in the NFl and starts Tim Ducksworth, Marcus McNeil, and King Dunlap..recievers that play Devin Aromashodu, and Ben Obomanu…not to mention two top five picks Ronnie Brown, who is great, and Carnell Williams, who was on pace to break the rookie rushing record till he tore his acl and mcl and now cant stay healthy but is still a good back. And two more first round picks Jason Cambell, who has been decent qb on a terrible team, and the number 9 picks Carlos Rodgers whose a damn good corner…i think USC had like 4 draft picks off that team, and none of there players have panned out as good as half the auburn players that left

    • grant

      marcus mcneil made the pro bowl as well, so did ronnie brown and jay ratliff. Caddilac still won rookie of the year that year and still got over 1100 yards.