Welcome to part 3 of our ongoing series remembering The Streak. Today, we go back to Auburn’s last regular season challenge to an undefeated season.
Auburn entered with a perfect 10-0 record and a #2 ranking (though it was a tie with Oklahoma). The Tigers were fresh off their most impressive performance of the season, dominating 5th-ranked Georgia 24-6 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated (Georgia’s only score came with just over 2 minutes to go in the game, long after the outcome had been decided). Most of Auburn’s wins to this point had been blowouts, or at least as close to blowouts as Tommy Tuberville could get. Auburn’s average margin-of-victory in conference games was over 20. They clinched the West on Halloween, a feat that still has not been matched. This was the team Auburn was supposed to have in 2003, but it needed to be unlocked by Al Borges.
Borges came to Auburn from a one-year stint at Indiana, and had been a West Coast guy, both in scheme and location, most of his career. In his interview, he stressed two things: a plan to get both Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown on the field at the same time, and developing Jason Campbell to become the quarterback deserving of his recruiting ranking. Williams and Brown would eventually combine for 2078 rushing yards, 465 receiving yards (Brown finished second on the team in receptions), and 22 total touchdowns*. Campbell would be named SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Seems like the plan worked.
Meanwhile, Alabama was in year 2 under Mike Shula. The Tide had improved, but dealt with an unbelievable rash of injuries. By the time they got to the Iron Bowl at 6-4, they had lost their starting QB and two RBs. The prevailing opinion entering the game was that Auburn would dominate Alabama just like they had every other opponent on the schedule other than LSU.
The prevailing opinion forgot that this is the Iron Bowl, and Alabama was playing at home. The Tide hit a long pass on their first possession and got a long field goal for a 3-0 lead. The cold rain didn’t seem to help Auburn. The Tigers went backwards and punted on their first three drives, then proceeded to have the next two end in turnovers**, with an interception deep in Auburn territory setting up another Alabama FG. Auburn finally put a drive together at the end of the half, but it stalled inside the Alabama 10. John Vaughn’s field goal attempt was a tight angle, and he clanged it off the upright. Auburn trailed 6-0 at the break, and it could have been worse if not for the defense.
Alabama’s defensive scheme had been based around stopping Williams and Brown. They wanted Auburn’s receivers to beat them on a cold, wet day. Auburn’s fifth play of the second half, a 51-yard strike to Aromashodu, did just that. Williams punched it in on the next play and Auburn had taken the lead. After an Alabama punt, Auburn got to work again, moving to Alabama’s 25 yard line before a TFL and a false start*** set them up with 3rd and 17.
Facing third and long, Auburn can either try and set up Vaughn for a FG, try and set up a fourth down and shorter distance, or just go for it all.
At first, Auburn lines up with 2 backs and a TE, but it isn’t 21 personnel. The “back” directly behind Campbell is big WR Anthony Mix. Alabama appears to have recognized it, so they’ll be watching him closely.
Mix has motioned out to give Alabama a different look. Alabama has two high safeties, but will be dropping into “Tampa-2”.
Traditionally, Cover-2 leaves the middle of the field vulnerable. Tampa-2 drops the middle linebacker (or any defender in the middle of the field) between the safeties once the play starts. This gives it more of a Cover-3 look. The middle of the field should be open underneath the “linebacker”, but given the down and distance here, that shouldn’t be a problem for Alabama.
Let’s go back and talk about the Mix motioning out of the backfield. Borges was a big fan of motioning players out of the backfield to force the defense to adjust on the fly****. Now we have the classic West Coast Offense concept of flooding a zone with receivers. Mix and Taylor will both get vertical. Taylor probably has the option to run a deep hitch if Madison doesn’t hand him off to the safety, but Madison stays underneath, thinking Peprah will take Taylor. Auburn’s goal here is to hopefully get a one-on-one matchup with either Mix or Taylor. Campbell makes a half-rollout to hopefully avoid the blitz.
From this shot alone, it looks like Alabama is in good shape. They have only rushed four, and Auburn kept 7 players in to block. The two CBs and two of the true linebackers have dropped to the 20 to ensure that any underneath routes, of which there are none, don’t pick up the first down. The safety to the top of the screen has shaded in as his receiver breaks inside. The Tampa-2 defender has picked up Mix from the OLB. If Peprah has stayed outside of the hashmark, there shouldn’t be anything open.
“If” was the key word there. Peprah gets caught up in watching Mix and stays just a bit too close to the hash. Campbell throws an absolute bullet as Madison lets Taylor go, and Peprah can’t get there in time. With one defender’s mistake, Auburn has scored a touchdown on 3rd and 17. 10 Alabama defenders played their assignments well. One got just a little too aggressive, and this offense made them pay for it.
This score would be all Auburn would need. Alabama’s next drive ended on a failed 4th and 1 at Auburn’s 48, and the Tigers marched right down and made it 21-6 on a Ronnie Brown score. Alabama would fight back and make it 21-13, because of course they did, but Auburn recovered the onside kick and ran the clock out to finish the regular season 11-0.
We know the rest of the 2004 story from there. Auburn finished 13-0 and while they weren’t allowed a chance to play for the national title, they started the drumbeat that would eventually lead to the College Football Playoff*****.
Alabama would fall to Minnesota in the Music City Bowl, but Shula had shown improvement despite injuries and scholarship restrictions. He appeared to have Alabama headed in the right direction.
*-not including the 29-yard TD pass Williams threw to Anthony Mix against Georgia.
**-both were more-or-less the fault of TE Cooper Wallace. Wallace let a pass slip through his fingers for the interception, and then fumbled at midfield on the next possession.
***-Wallace again. This wasn’t his best day.
****-the same concept worked for the winning TD against LSU earlier in the season. Carnell Williams motioned out to occupy a safety, and Courtney Taylor was wide open in the back of the endzone.
*****-no one needed a playoff when an SEC team got left out. EVERYBODY needed a playoff when two SEC teams played for the title.