NEW ORLEANS -- High above the field, a tiny handwritten sign read, "Auburn's No. 1 in my poll."
The Tigers ought to frame it, because that's likely to be the only place they're No. 1.
Needing a dominant display to keep their improbable hopes of splitting the national championship alive, the third-ranked Tigers instead limped to a 16-13 victory over No. 9 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl Monday night. Their offense was bland and their defense gave up two late touchdowns.
Even their postgame party was subdued, far from the raucous scene after last month's Southeastern Conference title game.
"Not having a chance to win the national championship is not a good feeling," receiver Courtney Taylor said. "We'd play the winner of the Orange Bowl at any time. We'd love to play them. But they're in the title game, and we're not."
The Tigers at least preserved their perfect season, becoming the first Auburn squad to finish 13-0. But that was small consolation when they watched last night's Orange Bowl between No. 1 Southern Cal and No. 2 Oklahoma. They knew after USC's 55-19 thrashing of the Sooners that the Trojans would be the undisputed national champion.
"People just don't understand how hard it is to go 13-0," said Jason Campbell, who threw for one touchdown. "I'm not going to sit here and say we're No. 2 behind anybody. I feel like we're No. 1."
They didn't play like it, though. John Vaughn's three short field goals accounted for most of the scoring. Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, Auburn's heralded running back duo, combined for just 129 yards rushing and didn't get close to the end zone.
Williams also fumbled in the fourth quarter when the Tigers, leading, 16-0, were driving for the touchdown that could have made the victory a lot more impressive.
Campbell was named MVP after completing 11 of 16 passes, but had only 189 yards passing. After playing superbly the first 50 minutes, Auburn's defense gave up two huge TDs, including an 80-yarder with two minutes left.
And if not for some blunders by the Hokies (10-3), Auburn wouldn't even be pleading its case right now.
Virginia Tech botched two easy scoring opportunities, including a chip-shot field goal, and also missed a 2-point conversion.
The Hokies finally found their groove late in the fourth quarter, with Bryan Randall connecting with Josh Morgan on two scoring passes, including the 80-yarder.
Randall threw for 299 yards, but was 21 of 38 with two interceptions.
"People were expecting it to be a blowout. People were expecting Auburn to show they should be in Miami," Virginia Tech cornerback Eric Green said. "I think they're right where they belong."
The odd team out in a troika of 12-0 teams, Auburn settled for a spot in the Sugar Bowl against the Hokies, while USC and Oklahoma were tapped for the Orange Bowl -- the BCS title game.
Nothing ever seems to work out smoothly in Division 1-A football, the only college sport that insists on using a mix of polls and bowls to determine its champion rather than settling things with a playoff.
Auburn's hopes were based on this convoluted scenario: The Tigers defeated Virginia Tech convincingly, Oklahoma knocked off USC in an ugly Orange Bowl and enough voters in the Associated Press media poll picked Auburn as the No. 1 team, creating another split championship.
The winner of the Orange Bowl is assured of being voted No. 1 in the coaches' poll. But the AP rankings aren't tied to the BCS.
Oklahoma's ugly showing last night meant it probably wouldn't have mattered, but when Hokies QB Randall threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Morgan with 6:58 left, ruining Auburn's shutout, one could almost sense that BCS officials were breathing a little easier. Randall dealt another blow with his 80-yard strike. The Tigers recovered the onside kick and kneeled down to run out the clock, deciding to preserve the victory rather than try to win more impressively.
"I just wanted to win by 1," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "That's all that counts. If you have to win with style points, you might as well throw out all the systems."
But with three unbeaten teams so closely matched, style and poise are the only way to set one apart. Last night, USC set itself apart with its rout of Oklahoma.