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The Auburn Expectations Curse

Is it real?

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"Oft, expectation fails and most oft there, where most it promises." -William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well

Like many Auburn fans, I felt a small chill when Auburn was picked to win the SEC.  Auburn fans have a pathological fear of high expectations, as Walt discussed yesterday.  The story is, Auburn always under performs when we're expected to do well and our best seasons come out of nowhere.

I had a rude introduction to this curse on my first Auburn football roadtrip.  On September 28, 1985, top ranked Auburn went to Neyland Stadium.  Bo Jackson was averaging just under 250 yards per game and 9.3 yards per carry.  The game went something like this:

At halftime, it was 24-0.  Bo left the game with an injured knee.  My parents drug me out of Neyland Stadium early.  Pat Dye said he knew Auburn's #1 ranking was "premature."  But, from that day on, I believed in the curse of high expectations.

Does this curse have any basis in reality?  The numbers say no.  According to Stassen, Auburn is the 38th most underrated team in college football since 1989 meaning that they have traditionally outperformed their preseason expectations but not significantly so.

Unfortunately, numbers have little soothing effect on my paranoid, superstitious Barner brain.  So I looked at every season in which Auburn was a preseason or final poll top 10 to see how Auburn has done with high preseason expectations.

Auburn's Performance with High Expectations

"That dirtiest of all dirty words--promising." - Paul Varjak, Breakfast at Tiffany's

To do this, I turn to College Poll Archive.  Including this year, Auburn has been ranked in the preseason top 10 sixteen times: 1958, '59, '64, '71, '75, '83, '84, '85, '87, '88, '89, '90, '95, 2003, '06, and 2014.  Of these sixteen teams, Auburn met expectations by finishing the season in the top 10 six times ('58, '83, '87, '88, '89, and '06).  These seasons had their share of disappointment.  In 1958, Auburn was a tie with Tech away from defending its 1957 National Title.  In 1983, Auburn fans believed they had done enough to win the national title, only to discover they had been jumped by Miami in the final poll.  In 1988, Auburn was one drive in Baton Rouge away from facing Notre Dame for the title.  In 2006 . . . well, let's not discuss 2006, those losses still don't make sense.  But, by any objective standard, those seasons were successful.  Auburn turned out to be who the pollsters believed them to be at the beginning of the year.  Our disappointment is mostly that we didn't turn out to be as good as we hoped we'd be.

Auburn slightly underperformed by finishing in the top 25 another six times ('59*, '64*, '71, '84, '90, and '95). Of these teams, the 1971 team deserves special mention.  Auburn stood 9-0 going into the Iron Bowl where Sullivan and Beasley lost their only game to the also undefeated and third ranked Tide.  Auburn then went to the Sugar Bowl where they lost to third ranked Oklahoma, whose only loss was a four point loss to the greatest team of all time, the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers in what was then known as the game of the century.  Auburn finished 12th, but their record shows a team that was as good as advertised.  The other teams on this list were good but the seasons felt disappointing because the seasons promised better.

That leaves only three Auburn teams ranked in the top 10 preseason that totally crapped out ('75, '85, and '03).   The '85 and '03 Tigers had moments of glory and made bowl games but would definitely be considered disappointments.  The '75 Tigers were abysmal by any standard, finishing 3-6-2 in Shug's last campaign.

So, when Auburn is ranked in the top 10 preseason, they meet expectations 40% of the time, slightly under performs 40% of the time, and craps out 20% of the time.  Only once out of the fifteen seasons in the data set did Auburn have an objectively unacceptable season but many of the others feel disappointing in light of the preseason's promise.

All's Well That Ends Well, or The Flip Side of the Auburn Curse

Surprise! surprise! surprise! - Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith Show

The flip side of the Auburn Expectations Curse is that Auburn fans feel comfortable when not much is expected of them.  Is this reasonable?  First of all, we know this isn't reasonable because we almost only talk about it when we've been picked high.  But just for conversation, let's look at where Auburn started in seasons where we finished in the top 10.

Auburn has finished in the top 10 17 times, twice more than it has been included in the preseason top 10.  Those years are 1955, '57, '58, '63, '72, '74, '83, '86, '87, '88, '89, '93, '94, 2004, '06, '10, and '13.  We know from above that six of these teams were preseason top 10.

Auburn has come from receiving no votes in the preseason to the top 10 five times. 1963, '72, '74, '93, and 2013.  All of these were magical seasons which deserve their own article.  That leaves six more seasons where Auburn was expected to be good but wound up in the top 10 in the final poll.  It appears then, that greatness finds Auburn in its own time whether we're looking for it or not.

What does this mean for 2015?

"Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves" William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  There is no curse.  It's up to this team to "wrassle with them angels" themselves.  If Jeremy Johnson, Jovon Robinson, or Duke Williams wants a 10' statue of themselves in front of the student entrance, they have to erect it for themselves, one yard at a time.  If Avery Young wants to be mentioned in the same sentence with Ed King and Zeke Smith, he has to put his hand in the dirt and take it from the man across from him eighty times a Saturday for fifteen weeks.

When the NCAA announced Auburn's probation before the 1993 season, Stan White, Willie Whitehead, and others announced to the media that in the absence of a bowl, Auburn was focused on going 11-0.  That team found its chemistry and strength in each other and did just that.  This team is more talented than that 1993 team.  If they can find their chemistry early, they have the opportunity to be truly special.

History is knocking.  It remains to be seen if the Tigers will open the door.