Now Auburn knows what it's like to be the odd team out a feeling Southern California knew only too well last year.
This year, though, the Trojans have no complaints.
USC and Oklahoma finished atop the final Bowl Championship Series standings Sunday and will meet in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4 in a title game that again might not end the argument over who is No. 1.
Auburn, 12-0 just like the top two teams, finished third in the BCS points system that relies on The Associated Press and coaches polls, plus computer ratings. So the Tigers will have to settle for a Sugar Bowl berth against Virginia Tech on Jan. 3.
''It's not a perfect system, and if it was we'd all be happy today,'' Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said during ABC's broadcast of the BCS pairings.
At least Auburn gets to play in one of the glamour games. California was left out of the BCS altogether after Texas passed the Golden Bears and moved into fourth in the final standings. The Longhorns (10-1) will play Big Ten co-champion Michigan (9-2) in the Rose Bowl. The Bears (10-1) were relegated to the Holiday Bowl, certainly not the showcase they were hoping for as the fourth-ranked team in the country.
''As a program, we were set on the Rose Bowl,'' Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. ''I felt like we did enough to earn that.''
USC finished with .9770 in the standings, and Oklahoma had .9681. Auburn's grade was .9331. Oklahoma's strong computer rankings kept the Sooners ahead of the Tigers in the BCS standings, while USC held on to first place thanks to its strong showing in the polls.
Last season, USC was left out of the BCS title game, despite being No. 1 in both the AP and coaches polls at the end of the regular season. Instead, Oklahoma played LSU in the Sugar Bowl, even though the Sooners lost the Big 12 title game.
When all the bowls were finished, LSU won the BCS championship, and USC was No. 1 in the final AP poll.
''We certainly understand what it feels like when you wished you'd been in this game,'' said USC coach Pete Carroll, sympathizing with Auburn's plight. ''Unfortunately, there were three undefeated teams and with this system one of them was going to be left out.''
In an attempt to avoid a repeat of 2003's mess, the BCS scaled back its formula, making it far more reliant on the human polls. But another problem arose, of course: For the first time since the BCS was implemented in 1998, there were more than two unbeaten teams from major conferences.
''The bottom line is whatever formula we have is going to be the target of some significant criticism at the end of the day,'' BCS coordinator and Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg said.
It worked great for Utah (11-0), which officially became the first team from a non-BCS conference to receive a bid to one of the four $14 million bowl games, earning a spot in the Fiesta Bowl against Big East representative Pittsburgh (8-3).
The Utes, from the Mountain West Conference, will play their last game under coach Urban Meyer on Jan. 1 in Tempe, Ariz. Meyer is headed to Florida.
The Trojans and Sooners went wire-to-wire as one and two, respectively, in both polls, and lined up the same way in the BCS standings for all but the first week, when Miami was No. 2 and Oklahoma third.
Auburn worked its way up both the polls and the BCS. The Tigers shared No. 2 with the Sooners in the AP Top 25 for one week but could never get past the Sooners.
So Sunday's Orange Bowl announcement was not surprising after Auburn, Oklahoma and USC all finished their regular seasons with wins Saturday.
Texas' move past Cal might have caught some people off guard, however.
It looked as if the Bears controlled their BCS destiny a few weeks ago and simply needed to win out to reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959. But Texas began gaining ground in the polls, especially with the coaches, as Longhorns coach Mack Brown lobbied for votes.
Texas' first BCS bid also means the Rose Bowl won't have its traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup.
As for the Orange Bowl, it's Oklahoma, the team that most people thought shouldn't have been in championship game last year, against USC, the team that most people thought should have been there instead.
''No question you have just a better feeling going into it,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ''It sure is a lot easier. Those wins give you a lot of energy and a boost.''
The Sooners and Trojans bring a total of 11 AP national titles into the game.
Oklahoma's seventh and last national title came in 2000 and was wrapped up with an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State. The controversy heading into that game was whether the BCS had picked the best one-loss team to face the unbeaten Sooners. The Seminoles made it to the title game despite losing in the regular season to Miami. The Hurricanes won the Sugar Bowl and finished second in the final rankings to the Sooners.
The Sooners and Trojans also have four of the leading Heisman Trophy contenders two on each side.
Oklahoma quarterback Jason White is making a run at becoming just the second two-time Heisman winner, while tailback Adrian Peterson has a chance to become the first freshman to win the award.
USC quarterback Matt Leinart has put up numbers equal to White, and versatile scatback Reggie Bush might be the most exciting and dangerous player in the country.
''It's going to be a nightmare for the defensive coaches,'' Carroll said. ''I think it's a perfect matchup.''
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