NEW ORLEANS - The Auburn Tigers are undefeated and unsatisfied.
The "We're No. 1," chant from fans rang a bit hollow when it started almost perfunctorily in the minutes after the Tigers' somewhat muted celebration of a 13-0 season.
Their 16-13 Sugar Bowl victory last night over No. 9 Virginia Tech at the Louisiana Superdome ended with Auburn falling on the ball to preserve the victory by running out the clock after giving up an 80-yard touchdown play with 2:01 left in a game that was a shutout until the fourth quarter.
"Not having a chance to win the national championship is not a good feeling," Auburn receiver Courtney Taylor said.
An undefeated season by a team from the Southeastern Conference usually ends with a national championship.
Instead, No. 3 Auburn will sit by as No. 1 Southern California and No. 2 Oklahoma play for the Bowl Championship Series title in the Orange Bowl tonight, with the Tigers still clinging to the hope voters in the Associated Press poll will find some justification for voting them No. 1. (The USA Today/ESPN coaches poll is bound by contract to rank the winner of the BCS title game No. 1.)
"They're playing a game tomorrow night," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "It's probably going to be a good game. Neither team is better than us. We'll play them anytime, anywhere."
If not for a missed 23-yard field goal by Virginia Tech's Brandon Pace or a goal-line stand by Auburn that ended with Virginia Tech fullback Jesse Allen unable to handle a fluttering, fourth-down pass that hit him in the hands, it might have been a different game.
Then again, the battle of two of the nation's top three scoring defenses might have been a blowout if Auburn hadn't had to settle for field goals three times in the first half after getting inside the 10-yard line.
"We just wanted to win by one; that's all that counts," Tuberville said. "If we've got to win by style points, we need to throw out all these systems and not worry about national champions, because it's about winning a game."
The what-ifs left by the BCS system will be talked about for much longer than the what-ifs of this game.
How Auburn might fare against the winner of tonight's game between USC and Oklahoma will be left to speculation.
Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell, named the game's Most Valuable Player after completing 11 of 16 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown with one interception, made a plea for reporters' votes after the game
Auburn led 9-0 at halftime after field goals of 23, 19 and 24 yards by John Vaughn.
The Tigers finally scored the first touchdown of the game on the opening possession of the second half. On third-and-16, Campbell scrambled and threw off his back foot to Anthony Mix for a 53-yard gain to the 13.
This time, Auburn didn't need the field-goal unit, with Campbell passing to Devin Aromashodu on third-and-two from the 5-yard line.
With a 16-0 lead, Auburn looked as if it was ready to put the pedal down for the sort of convincing rout that might sway voters.
Virginia Tech (10-3) seemed almost incapable of mounting a comeback after Pace's missed field-goal attempt.
But two turnovers - an interception by Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams and a fumble by Auburn's Carnell Williams recovered by the Hokies - started to diminish the impressiveness of Auburn's performance.
Virginia Tech took advantage, with Josh Morgan scoring on a third-down play from the 29 after he caught a pass and cut to the sideline, leaving two would-be tacklers looking at his back.
The score was 16-6 with 6:58 left in the game after the Hokies attempted a two-point conversion that failed when Bryan Randall's pass hit the ground in front of receiver Richard Johnson in the end zone.
Morgan scored the Hokies' final touchdown as well, on the first play of a possession that began at their own 20 with 2:13 remaining.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.