A 12-0 record and SEC title would be enough to make the Tigers front-runners for the national title most seasons _ or at least cause a spirited debate about who's No. 1.
But this isn't most years.
While Southern California and Oklahoma prepare for their Orange Bowl matchup Tuesday that probably will decide an undisputed national title, Auburn can only watch like the envious child with his nose pressed up against the glass. No matter what the Tigers do in Monday night's Sugar Bowl, they have little, if any chance, of being No. 1.
"To be honest with you, it gives us more motivation," running back Carnell Williams said. "Everybody's mad, disappointed, hurt. But why should we stop here and let that be a setback? Why not go out on Jan. 3 and try to show people that the system is whacked? They messed up. We are the best team."
If this scenario sounds familiar, well, it is. Only No. 3 Auburn's plight is even more pitiful than top-ranked Southern California's being left out of the Bowl Championship Series title game last year.
The Trojans at least had the hope of splitting the national title because they were No. 1 in both polls, and that's exactly what happened. Southern California kept its No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, while LSU won the BCS crown.
But Auburn is behind No. 1 Southern California and No. 2 Oklahoma, who have identical 12-0 records. Even if Auburn beats No. 9 Virginia Tech (10-2) in one of those laughers normally reserved for nonconference foes, the Tigers are unlikely to leapfrog the Orange Bowl winner.
The BCS tweaked its formula this season in hopes of avoiding messes just like this, emphasizing the human polls over computers. But as Auburn and Utah and California found out, the polls aren't foolproof, either.
While Southern California and Oklahoma have been the national title favorites all season, Auburn was way down at No. 17 in the preseason poll. That's a lot of ground to make up, and the Tigers had little hope of doing it when USC and Oklahoma kept winning.
Auburn climbed as high as a tie for second with Oklahoma in the Nov. 14 AP poll, but dropped back to third the next week. Even a victory over then-No. 15 Tennessee _ the Tigers' second of the year _ in the SEC title game couldn't give them the boost they needed.
"Our preseason ranking hurt us because we had to climb so high to get ourselves in that situation," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "If we had started in the Top five or Top 10, I feel like we probably would be playing in the national championship game.
"It hurt, because that's something we've fought for all year. I felt like people had questions, and we went out there and answered all the questions."
Auburn might be the best story in college football this season. Certainly no one's overcome more than the Tigers to get where they are.
A soap opera writer couldn't have scripted Auburn's 2003 season. The Tigers didn't come close to meeting their lofty expectations, and a small cabal of university leaders embarrassed themselves and the school and humiliated coach Tommy Tuberville with their bungled attempt to push the coach out.
In a rare display of decorum in athletics, Tuberville refused to fire back at his detractors. That class struck a chord with his players, and they credit the turmoil for bringing them even closer. Williams, fellow running back Ronnie Brown and cornerback Carlos Rogers decided to put the NFL on hold and return for their senior seasons.
That this could be a special season became clear in the third game, when the Tigers rallied to beat then-No. 5 LSU 10-9 on a touchdown with 1:14 left. They rolled from there, winning all but one of their games by double digits. Their 12-0 record is the best in Auburn history, and their SEC title was the school's first since 1989.
"We really have done something special this year by going 12-0 so far," offensive tackle Marcus McNeill said. "We want to end up this perfect season and go down as one of Auburn's greatest teams."
And the Tigers will have to be content with that.