NEW ORLEANS - Auburn is holding out hope against hope.
Deep down, the Tigers faithful - having been denied a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game - still believe that a spectacular showing against Virginia Tech at 8 tonight in the Sugar Bowl would somehow lead to a share of the national championship.
"There are two national championship games," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said yesterday. "There's one here at the Sugar Bowl, and there's another one at the Orange Bowl."
The Orange Bowl will pit two unbeatens - Oklahoma against Southern California - for the BCS national championship. Auburn (12-0) has the distinction of being the first unbeaten team from the Southeastern Conference not to play for the BCS title.
But with national championships on the line, strange things have happened in the past. The Tigers' only chance to get a piece of the title is in the Associated Press writers' poll, which will hold a final vote after tomorrow's Orange Bowl. The winner of the Orange is guaranteed to be voted the BCS national champion in the coaches' poll.
"Obviously, we feel like there's one more vote," Tuberville said. "We'll be auditioning."
The Tigers admit that not playing outright for the title - and having to rely on sportswriters to decide their fate - has been tough to stomach.
"It's disappointing, but you still can't take away all that we've done this year," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "We just have to go out there and play to win."
In a perfect Auburn world, the Sugar and the Orange bowls would be NCAA Division I-A playoff semifinal games, with the winners meeting next week on the field in a national championship game.
"We should have a playoff," Tigers defensive back Junior Rosegreen said. "The top four should play. One should play three. Two should play four and whoever wins should play for the national championship.
"Then you can crown your real champion. Then nobody will be saying we have to split the national championship."
But while the AP has ordered the BCS to stop using its poll to help pick the top two teams, a playoff system still appears to be a long shot. Ten of 13 college presidents contacted by the Journal-Constitution said they were adamantly opposed to going to a playoff system when the next round of BCS discussions is held later this month.
"A playoff system with eight teams would have been good," Auburn tight end Cooper Wallace said. "Then you wouldn't have to worry about the computers. ESPN did one computer playoff and they had us losing to Utah. That can't be right. You always just ask yourself, 'What would happen if we did get to play?' "
Virginia Tech, which opened the season with a loss to USC, rebounded to win the Atlantic Coast Conference in its first year as a member. The Hokies' only other loss was a 17-16 squeaker to North Carolina State.
There's support in the Virginia Tech locker room for a playoff.
"If you want to get down to who is the best team in college football, a playoff system would be the undisputed way of doing it," Tech defensive back Vincent Fuller said.
National championship hopes - real or imagined - notwithstanding, the matchup between the SEC and ACC champs should be compelling.
Auburn boasts one of the nation's top running attacks, powered by Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown, who combined for 1,949 yards and 20 touchdowns this season.
Virginia Tech, which has an eight-game winning streak, has the country's third-best scoring defense (Auburn is No. 1 nationally, allowing 11.2 points per game).