Two weeks from today we’ll be getting ready for the opener of the 2017 season as Auburn gets ready to meet Georgia Southern. It’s coming quickly, folks. Get ready.
1993 - Auburn 14, Vanderbilt 10
Auburn was in the midst of an undefeated season, but hadn’t really been tested yet. The Tigers were 4-0 heading to Nashville to take on a Commodore team that had won only against Wake Forest. Meanwhile, Auburn hadn’t faced a team with a winning record. That didn’t mean this game wouldn’t be difficult.
The Tigers got up 14-10 as the third quarter ended, but the Commodores were inside the Auburn 10-yard line with roughly thirteen minutes to play. Vandy coach Gerry DiNardo decided to go for it, and the Tiger defense stood tall.
The stop led Auburn to its fifth win of the year, and the Tigers would run the table to go 11-0 in Terry Bowden’s first season.
1958 - Auburn 14, Alabama 8
The Tigers were in the midst of their longest winning streak ever over Alabama -- four games — entering the 1958 season. As defending national champions, Auburn ran out to an 8-0-1 record before the Iron Bowl, with the only blemish coming in a tie against Georgia Tech in Atlanta in the first month of the season.
One year earlier, Auburn had blanked Alabama 40-0 to finish off a perfect year and claim the AP national title, but the Tide had made a big coaching change that offseason, bringing in former player and current Texas A&M coach Bear Bryant.
Alabama was vastly improved, but wouldn’t have quite enough yet to hang with a powerful Auburn team in Bryant’s first year. The Tigers opened up a 14-0 lead and hung on as Bama scored a late touchdown and then couldn’t convert an onside kick.
Auburn finished the year undefeated, but the lone tie and the fact that they didn’t play in a bowl game prevented the Tigers from repeating as national champions. Instead, LSU took the title along with Iowa, as the Bayou Bengals and Billy Cannon finished 10-0 on the year.
14 Years Ago - 2003
If ever there was a year where the expectations blew through the roof, it was 2003. After finishing 2002 on a tear, beating three top ten teams, including Alabama and Penn State, and nearly unseating Georgia as well, Auburn had all the hype in the world.
Jason Campbell had become an efficient quarterback, capable of hitting the big play when necessary, and he was joined in the backfield by two potential All-Americans in Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. Throw in the fact that Auburn had some incredible talent on defense — Karlos Dansby, Dontarrious Thomas, and Carlos Rogers — and it was a perfect recipe for a team destined for greatness.
Leading up to that year, one publication visited the Tiger practice and wrote “they look like an NFL team out there,” while the Sporting News picked Auburn #1 and said that they’d meet Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. I remember talking to my dad and pondering the possibility of going ahead and purchasing tickets for the BCS title game. We all knew Auburn would be in it. There was no doubt.
Except nobody really considered the loss of Bobby Petrino. He’d gone to be the head coach at Louisville, and it would be a loss that no one else on Auburn’s staff could fill. Instead, Tuberville promoted Hugh Nall (offensive line) and Steve Ensminger (quarterbacks) to be co-coordinators and to run Petrino’s offense. Great! Continuity! National championship, here we come.
Auburn opened the year with USC at home in the return game for the Tigers’ trip to LA the previous season. USC had lost Carson Palmer, Troy Polamalu, and a ton of other talent. They’d be starting some kid named Matt Leinart and nobody had any illusions that they’d be competitive on the Plains.
I was there. August 30, 2003. It’s the reason that I’ve been taught not to EVER EXPECT THAT ANYTHING GOOD WILL HAPPEN.
A few months earlier, in May, Auburn’s beloved radio announcer Jim Fyffe had passed away. In his place now was Rod Bramblett, former baseball play-by-play man, and the seemingly easy choice to fill the booth. To honor Fyffe, the mic man got up before the game on the field and said “When Auburn scores the first touchdown of the day, I want this side to yell ‘Touchdown!’ and I want this side to yell ‘Auburn!’”
It was going to be great. My dad and I were on the “Touchdown” side, and we practiced with great gusto before the inevitable rout of the Western visitors. They wouldn’t be able to handle the humidity or the 22 NFL starters that Auburn had in orange and blue.
Auburn’s first snap went backward as Cadillac got stuffed behind the line. Okay, no problem.
Then Jason Campbell’s first pass was tipped and picked off. Seconds later, Matt Leinart’s first college pass attempt went for a touchdown right in front of the students. Something was terribly wrong.
I sat there and watched Auburn struggle on offense as USC bebopped its way right down the field. They only notched 23 points (which would be low for them in coming years), but they would’ve been fine kneeling the ball after their first score. They shut Auburn out 23-0. The car ride back was a daze. We listened to the disbelief on the postgame radio show. None of the players and coaches could fathom what had happened. Auburn’s ranking — gone.
In the days following, we heard that USC had used slants to jam up Auburn’s defensive line. The coaches spoke of it as if it was some secret weapon that the Trojans had invented and employed for the first time ever. As a kid, I wasn’t totally aware that slants were in fact PRETTY COMMON.
The next week, they’d travel to Georgia Tech. This was a sure win... like Chan Gailey and Reggie Ball, whoever that was, could pose a threat to an angry Auburn team.
Well, they did. A 17-3 Yellow Jacket win later, Auburn was 0-2 and had scored three points combined in its first two games. Something was terribly wrong. The awful incompetence was astounding. Auburn couldn’t get out of its own way.
Finally, the Tigers got to play someone that would basically lay down and die. The Tigers scored their first touchdown of the year against Vanderbilt in week three, winning 45-7 and at least getting something right. Then they blasted Western Kentucky 48-3, but I knew it would all come crashing down again when #7 Tennessee visited Jordan-Hare the following Saturday night.
Tennessee boasted Casey Clausen and a slew of athletic receivers, plus a great linebacker corps that would make Auburn’s running attack work much harder to gain yardage.
Despite the 2-2 record, fans showed up in full force on the Plains. A filled Jordan-Hare with Ron Franklin on ESPN’s broadcast made it hard to look away. Over the first few weeks, the Tigers’ run game hadn’t been churning the way it had been, and we found out why Cadillac in particular was having a tough time. He was tentative.
After breaking his leg the year before, he wasn’t totally sure in its sturdiness. After taking a hit against WKU right on the spot where it broke, he regained his confidence and decided to run hard.
Against Tennessee, he ran 36 times for 185 yards and a touchdown as the Tigers got up 28-7 before holding off a furious rally by the Vols. A Carlos Rogers interception sealed the deal in the final minute and the Tigers got the kind of win we expected once the season started.
There was no rest for the weary, however. Auburn had to travel to Fayetteville for an 11 AM game with Tuberville’s personal nemesis, the Arkansas Razorbacks. After routing Texas and beating Alabama, the Hogs were ranked 7th now, making it the Tigers’ second straight game against a team ranked in that spot.
Again, Cadillac ran wild, going for 150 yards and the game’s only touchdown, and Karlos Dansby notched a key sack at the end to finish off the Razorbacks as Auburn won 10-3. Now they were 4-2 and looking like the team we expected.
The next week, sitting at 4-2, Auburn hosted Mississippi State in what would turn out to Jackie Sherrill’s last Starkville squad. This was Cadillac’s true coming-out party at the midpoint of the year.
Cadillac ran for 161 yards and six touchdowns (five in the first half) as Auburn blew out the Bulldogs 45-13. Junior college transfer Brandon Jacobs also rumbled for 182 yards on the day, finally breaking out in his first extended action of the year.
Things were looking good up until the trip to Baton Rouge. Nick Saban’s fourth team at LSU turned out to be pretty salty, but they hadn’t really turned it on to that point yet. They’d beaten Georgia early in the season, but lost to Ron Zook and Florida in a pretty uncompetitive game before Auburn came in.
LSU quarterback Matt Mauck completed a 64-yard touchdown to Devery Henderson just two minutes in, and the rout was on. Two touchdowns later and Auburn trailed 21-0 in the first quarter. Auburn finally got on the board with an Anthony Mix touchdown catch late in the game, but it had been over for a while. Auburn headed back home at 5-3 with a 31-7 loss.
Auburn roughed up Louisiana-Monroe the next week 73-7, and got back in to winning ways before Ole Miss and senior Eli Manning came to visit Jordan-Hare. This was a game that Auburn could definitely win, and may push the season to be deemed a success if they could upset the 20th-ranked Rebels.
The Tigers led 10-7 after one quarter, then trailed 14-10 at halftime before a tipped catch-and-run for 68 yards by Ben Obomanu gave them a 17-14 lead in the third quarter. After Ole Miss tied the game, Auburn kicker Phillip Yost booted a short kick to give the Tigers a 20-17 lead.
Eli Manning drove the Rebels down the field and they scored the go-ahead touchdown with a little over two minutes to play. Down 24-20, Auburn needed something. Again, Obomanu acted the hero, taking a short dump pass and weaving deep into Rebel territory. Auburn found itself at the Ole Miss ten, and a few plays later threw into the endzone.
By God, I won’t even show you the video. You know what happened next. Ben Obomanu, the only reason Auburn was even in position to score, dropped the ball. Campbell hit him right in the numbers, and he inexplicably leapt to try and make the catch. He just sort of swatted the ball into the ground instead and fell to his knees in agony. On the ensuing fourth down play, Auburn tried the same rollout pass, but it was defended much better.
Ole Miss won 24-20. In the postgame interview room, a teary Obomanu came in, still wearing his uniform, and answered every question asked of him. It took real guts to do that, but that loss numbed me like few have since. I remember sitting at dinner after that staring at the menu, blindly replaying the drop in my head.
Next up was a trip to Athens that more resembled the games against USC and LSU earlier in the year. Auburn put up zero fight and lost 26-7. Sitting at 6-5, far from where they’d expected to be at this point, the only thing that could salvage any excitement was a win in the Iron Bowl. We still had a lot to get through first.
We had to get through Jetgate. Auburn officials took booster Bobby Lowder’s private plane to fly to Louisville in an attempt to woo Bobby Petrino to replace Tuberville after the season. To be fair, the expectations set and the season Auburn had warranted a firing. It really did. And the only reason Tuberville got to stay is because the entire thing blew up in Auburn’s face. That news all came out a couple of days after the Iron Bowl, but it was still embarrassing.
Tuberville had managed to save face a bit, in large part, by beating Alabama. How did that happen, you ask? Well, it gave us one of the most famous plays in recent Auburn history.
Auburn won a weird Iron Bowl 28-23, with Cadillac rushing for two scores and in excess of 200 yards. If Auburn had lost that Iron Bowl and finished 6-6 on the year where they were supposed to win the national title, Tuberville would’ve been fired. After the win, he gained a sympathy from Auburn fans because of the administrations back-alley dealing, but a loss to Mike Shula and the 4-7 Tide wouldn’t have gotten him any help.
Jetgate afforded Tuberville another year, at the very least, and he’d make the most of it. After Auburn beat Wisconsin in the Music City Bowl, things looked up for the Tigers as they headed into 2004. With a senior-laden team, it could only get better, right?
Coming Next: Undefeated but Still Sitting at Home