ATLANTA -- Late in the first quarter, as Auburn began to recite last rites to Tennessee, SEC commissioner Mike Slive stood in the back of the Georgia Dome press box and tried justifying a BCS system ready to exclude a 12-0 Tiger team that did everything but wax and buff computer geek Jeff Sagarin's car.
Slive, choosing his words as if he were still a practicing attorney, did what he could to make sense of the worst idea since McSushi. But here was undefeated Auburn, on its way to a 38-28 victory in the SEC Championship, and the best it could hope for was a) a UCLA upset of USC; b) someone giving Oklahoma's bus driver wrong directions to Arrowhead Stadium; or c) mass sympathy votes by anyone with an AP or ESPN/USA Today ballot.
"For the moment," said Slive, "the system is what we have."
And what we have is messier than a cafeteria food fight. If the BCS were any more chaotic you'd have the Notre Dame coaching search committee.
The problem is this -- the national championship game is a two-seat coupe, and Auburn isn't a member of the BCS auto club. The Tigers didn't overwhelm Tennessee on Saturday evening, but then again, USC didn't exactly leave welt marks on the gutty little Bruins. But the Trojans began the night No. 1 in the BCS Standings, followed by No. 2 OU, followed by No. 3 Auburn -- and all three teams won.
"I know we'll get one first-place vote," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who will need more than his own ballot to squeeze into the BCS Championship.
Tuberville has taken the high road during this latest BCS fiasco, saying only that he hopes the 61 voting coaches and 65 voting media will give his Tigers fair consideration. But if Auburn does get left behind -- and every indication points to an OU-USC Orange Bowl -- the Tigers will become the first 12-0 SEC team not to play for a national championship.
"We're going to be disappointed," said Tuberville. "It'll be my luck if it happens."
Auburn did everything it was asked to do this season. It finished 9-0 in arguably the toughest conference in the country. It beat defending co-national champion LSU. It beat Tennessee twice on the road. And it won't matter.
"When you go 12-0 in the SEC, there's no doubt in my mind that you should play in the dance -- and that's the Orange Bowl," said Auburn safety Junior Rosegreen.
There were a handful of Orange Bowl reps here, mostly in case USC or Oklahoma somehow lost. But once the Trojans squeezed past UCLA and Oklahoma used Colorado as a Handi-Wipe, the Orange Bowl folks made a beeline for their rental cars. After all, what's the point?
Auburn fans knew it was a long shot. Read one anti-BCS sign:
Even Tuberville's mother, Olive, who stood in back of the Auburn bench as the clock made its way to zeroes, could do the math.
"I'd settle for No. 2," she said of the final BCS Standings, which will be announced at 5 p.m. Sunday. "But I'm afraid we're not going to get it."
Of course, that didn't stop Auburn fans from heaving oranges at the field at game's end. Junior Rosegreen did his postgame interviews holding a piece of the fruit in his left hand. Other Tiger players posed for photos with oranges in their possession. Wishful thinking, nothing more.
"They need to change the system," said Tigers star cornerback Carlos Rogers.
Aubie, the Tiger mascot, will grow a second tail before that happens.
Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, citing a confidentiality agreement among the voting coaches, would only say that Auburn is "one of the top three teams in the country." But when pressed, Fulmer said that the Tigers were capable of beating either USC or Oklahoma.
Auburn is certainly capable of beating Tennessee. The Tigers won in Knoxville by 24 and in Atlanta by 10. At halftime they had 17 first downs to UT's two, 303 total yards to the Vols' 39 and 21 points to Tennessee's seven.
But to Tennessee's credit, the Vols tied the score with 6:05 left in the third quarter and were within three points with 10:07 remaining in the game. But then Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell hit Ben Obomanu with a 43-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 10.
Campbell, the game's MVP, finished 27-of-35 for 374 yards and three touchdowns, as well as 57 rushing yards. In all, Auburn outgained Tennessee 559-297. The Tigers almost doubled up the Vols in time of possession.
"I was just looking at his numbers," said Fulmer of Campbell's stats. "That's incredible what he just did."
The same can be said for Auburn, which is guaranteed a Sugar Bowl appearance, probably against Virginia Tech, but nothing more. USC and OU will get the Jan. 4 bowl gig.
"I'll scream privately," said Tuberville of Auburn's BCS fate. "It's our system. It's not perfect. It will never be perfect. And sure, I'll scream, real loud to myself."
Forget perfect. How about logical? The SEC's Slive, before returning to his suite, had it right when he asked, "How much weight can this system carry?"
The answer: Not enough to hold Auburn.
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.