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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Unlucky Tigers, Ducks finally get their title shots


PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- The BCS was new, UCLA was No. 2 and the season was magic. Thirteen years later Nick Aliotti can't believe he was that close to a national championship.

"I don't think I really realized the magnitude of it, if we would have won that game," Oregon's defensive coordinator said.

The years have taught Aliotti never to forget Dec. 5, 1998. In the first year of something called the Bowl Championship Series, Aliotti was then UCLA's D coordinator. That day the Bruins' undefeated season was at stake. UCLA needed to win at Miami to clinch a berth in the first BCS championship game. But a combination of South Florida heat, Edgerrin James (299 rushing yards) and Aliotti's subpar defense resulted in a 49-45 Miami win.

'I've been sleeping like a baby,' says Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. 'Every two hours I wake up and cry.' (Getty Images)  
'I've been sleeping like a baby,' says Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. 'Every two hours I wake up and cry.' (Getty Images)  
"It was probably one of the worst coaching day experiences of my entire life," said the 56-year Aliotti as he prepared for Monday's latest BCS national championship game. "I'll probably never forget it. It was traumatic. I felt like I truly lost the game for us. I remember apologizing for all the coaches almost to the point of tears."

The end was ugly and lasting. The game had been rescheduled for the first week of December because of Hurricane Georges in September. UCLA coach Bob Toledo was subsequently criticized for flying his cool-breeze West Coast team into the Miami cauldron the day before the game. UCLA -- only five winning seasons and two coaches since then -- has never been the same. Neither has Aliotti.

"From that point on ... I was a wounded duck," he said.

Make that, Duck. Aliotti departed on his own after that season, returning to Oregon -- his third stint with the school -- and never left. That's why Monday's game is the living, breathing definition of coming close. The point spread favors a high-scoring game won by Auburn by three points. That's only because it was that close that Cameron Newton is even on the field for Monday's game. It was barely a month ago that an NCAA ruling made him eligible for the SEC title game. The ruling has held to this day, which is all Newton and Auburn need to go after their first title since 1957.

Thirteen years after the Mistake in Miami, Aliotti has spent the week trying to explain how he's going to stop the player some are calling the best in history.

"Guys ask me how I've been sleeping," he said. "I've been sleeping like a baby. Every two hours I wake up and cry."

Traditionally, these BCS title games haven't been close. Only one has been decided by less than seven points. But if not for Texas' 41-38 win over USC in the 2006 national championship game, Auburn's Gene Chizik might not be here. His career took off after the Texas defense he coordinated stopped USC on fourth-and-2 late in the game. That stop allowed Vince Young to score the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.

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"This game coming up could come down to the exact same thing," said Chizik, who still walks around his office in the cowboy boots embossed with the national championship logo from that year that went to every member of the Texas staff.

Close? Auburn is bursting with anticipation because it has been so close. It's been almost six decades since a national title but there have been tantalizingly close calls. The 1983 team (11-1) came into the Sugar Bowl ranked No. 3 and won, but was jumped by No. 5 Miami for the No. 1 spot. Miami went on to establish a dynasty. Auburn went on to more frustration. The 1993 team went undefeated but was banned from the postseason because of NCAA infractions. The undefeated 2004 team was denied a BCS title shot because of, well, the BCS. The system judged Oklahoma and USC more worthy to play for the title.

"I’m talking about the Auburn family," Chizik said. "I'm talking about the people that decided to travel and come and out there and don't have a ticket."

Close? Don't even bother getting close to University of Phoenix Stadium if you don't have a ticket. The game is being called the toughest ticket in the history of sports. StubHub suspended sales of tickets briefly last week because of the demand. Top-end tickets are going for $4,000 each for two schools who have never played for a BCS title. That's because the BCS has been mostly a closed shop. This year's participants are only the 13th and 14th (out of 120 I-A schools) to play for the title in the BCS era. Auburn is trying to win the SEC's fifth consecutive national title. Aside from USC and its recent dominance, Oregon would be the first team west of the Rockies to win a national championship since Washington in 1991.

Because of that lack of western influence, these could be the two most diverse programs in BCS title game history. They are separated by more than just 2,500 miles.

"They're a little bit more liberal, we're a little more conservative," said Auburn offensive lineman Ryan Pugh. "They wear Nike, we wear Under Armour. They wear a lot of Nike, we wear a little Under Armour. They have something different on every week. We're really hard after our alumni to change our uniforms that we haven't changed for 200 years."

Speaking of close, Cecil Newton will be somewhere near Cam. The celebrated father looking for a hand out with his hands out didn't make the Heisman ceremony, perhaps out of embarrassment. Dad isn't going to miss what is most likely his son's last college game.

"Cam's got all the things it takes to be a great player at the next level," Chizik said.

Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell celebrates in 2004, the year the BCS shut the unbeaten Tigers out of the title game. (Getty Images)  
Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell celebrates in 2004, the year the BCS shut the unbeaten Tigers out of the title game. (Getty Images)  
Close? There's a lot of pressure on one Brian Neale of Indianapolis, Ind. The umpire from the Big Ten crew working the game is responsible for putting the ball in play before each snap. If he stands over the ball for any amount of time, both up-tempo offenses will be anxious. Oregon is the highest-scoring team in the land. Auburn is No. 4. Oregon averages 79 plays per game, fourth in the nation. Auburn's scout-team offense has been getting plays off in 9-11 seconds to simulate the Ducks' tempo.

"That's warp speed," Chizik said. "It really is. It's smoking out there."

Victory could come because of oxygen deprivation.

The teams have specialized in playing close games. Each has come from behind eight times this season. Auburn's comebacks are more celebrated because there have been four rebounds from double-digit deficits. The comeback from 24 down against Alabama was the game of the season, and one of the best in the history of the Iron Bowl.

Mostly, though, close has been a curse for the two schools. Auburn has to live in the nearby shadow of the more accomplished big brother, Alabama. Oregon to this point is noted mostly for being close to Nike and to the hearts of comedy fans everywhere. The campus was the shooting location for "Animal House."

With 37 days having passed since the end of the regular season, it makes you want to shout. The game is finally here.

"Thirty-five years of coaching and you don't know when you're going to have the opportunity to do what we're doing this week," said Aliotti. "I've tried to relish it."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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