Yesterday marked two weeks until kickoff, so now we’re going to get into the real rollercoaster ride that’s been Auburn football over the last dozen years or so. Today we talk about the number thirteen.
2002 - Auburn 13, Penn State 9
We touched on this game very briefly just a couple of days ago during the article about the 2002 season. Auburn had just beaten Alabama with a bunch of backups on the field after having nearly beaten Georgia the week prior. The Tigers had finished the regular season strong, winning four of five and taking out two top ten teams along the way. Ronnie Brown had been a major workhorse in his time taking over the starting role, and despite and ankle injury that kept him out of the Iron Bowl, he’d be well enough to play in time for the Capital One Bowl against the Nittany Lions.
Auburn and Penn State met on New Year’s Day 2003 with the Tigers back at full strength, but with a big test ahead. PSU featured Larry Johnson in the backfield, a powerful tailback who’d eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark over the course of the year. He’d even finished third in the Heisman voting behind Carson Palmer and Brad Banks of Iowa. In his final four games of the regular season, he’d gone for 279, 188, 327, and 279 yards with ten total touchdowns. The guy was a machine and would certainly pose a huge threat to the Auburn defense.
He got completely outclassed by that Tiger D and Ronnie Brown. Johnson was limited to just 72 yards on twenty carries, while Brown rumbled for 184 yards and the game winning score with just a couple minutes left. Auburn ended up winning 13-9, setting up impossible expectations for the next season.
1983 - Auburn 13, Georgia 7
I would expound on this game that sent Auburn to the Sugar Bowl with a conference title, but why not just let John Facenda, aka the Voice of God, do it for you?
What’s not shown there is a nearly-field-length touchdown run by Bo Jackson, who barely grazed the sideline on his way to paydirt and negated what would’ve been one of his signature runs. Either way, and you see it in the video, Georgia had no business testing that Auburn defense, and the furtive sugar-licking glances of Pat Dye afterward suggest as much.
13 Years Ago - 2004
And here we are, finally reaching 2004. Up until Cam Newton arrived on the Plains, this was the greatest year in the last half-century of Auburn football. Undefeated, conference champs, SEC Player of the Year Jason Campbell, two top-five draft picks, and some of the best football played at Auburn in some time all came out of this season.
How did we get there? Well, after the fiasco of 2003’s offense, the Nallsminger experiment, Tommy Tuberville knew he needed to modernize just a bit. Thus, the coaching search began for a new coordinator. I remember the prospective guys, from small schools with high-flying attacks like Miami (Ohio) and Toledo.
Then, a decision was made. Auburn hired Al Borges from Indiana. He hadn’t really been on the list, and after looking at the Hoosiers’ stats from 2003, I had 100% confidence that we’d screw up Campbell, Williams, and Brown’s senior seasons. Indiana averaged less than fifteen points per game, good for 115th in the country. They barely put up 300 yards per game, again near the bottom of the ranks. This did not look good.
Still, as we watched Auburn in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe, we saw some different things. Oh, there’s a deep ball. Hey, they threw to the running backs. That out route actually went past the sticks on third down. It was super vanilla, but it got the job done and the Tigers took the opener 31-0 over the Warhawks. We’d see how things went in a couple weeks against the defending national champions when LSU came to town.
There was still a game against the newly-led Mississippi State Bulldogs before that. Gone was Jackie Sherrill, and in his place was the first black head coach in SEC history in Sylvester Croom. Croom seemed to be a great hire — a former star under Bear Bryant and a well-respected coach around the country. He just had too much going against him in Starkville, where the cupboard was completely barren.
Against the Bulldogs, Auburn really opened up the offense a bit. Both Williams and Brown went for over a hundred yards, while Jason Campbell threw for three scores. Auburn got up 43-0 before MSU hit a couple of garbage time touchdowns, but it was still a very satisfying win.
At 2-0, Auburn would have to now face off in a huge early season matchup with LSU, the defending national champions. These two had traded 31-7 wins the last two seasons, but LSU had hit its stride under Nick Saban, boasting a stingy defense and an offense that put up points fairly quickly. Two days before the game, however, Hurricane Ivan struck the Gulf Coast.
Living in Montgomery at the time, the road to my house was blocked from trees falling everywhere around it, and we didn’t get power back until Sunday night. All Thursday, the winds blew and rain spat down from above and doubt was cast upon whether they’d be able to play the game. Friday dawned hot and humid with power out around the Southeast, but Saturday emerged with all the clouds sucked away by the storm and a gloriously dry and wonderful September Saturday.
When the game kicked off, LSU took its opening drive on a quick march all the way down the field and scored on a Dwayne Bowe touchdown that took nearly seven minutes out of the opening quarter. The Bayou Bengals would miss the extra point, putting them up 6-0 (this would be so important later).
Auburn notched a field goal by John Vaughn on its opening drive, and LSU matched with a kick of their own early in the second quarter to go up 9-3. For nearly 45 minutes after that, the two teams played even football.
In one of the most hard-hitting and tense ballgames I can remember, Auburn and LSU went back and forth, advancing and retreating, jabbing and blocking, weakening each other with each blow, until Auburn ended up with the headshot late.
The Tiger defense stood tall after allowing the nine early points, hitting as hard as possible and abusing the LSU offense throughout the rest of the game...
Auburn’s offense wouldn’t have it any easier. You could tell they were close to breaking through, even failing on a fourth down inside the one late in the third, but they couldn’t cross the goal line. With just a few minutes remaining in the game, however, they’d need to cobble something together to get the necessary points.
The Tigers began their final drive methodically with about six minutes left on the clock, starting with powerful running from Ronnie Brown and a stellar catch-and-run from Anthony Mix for first downs. Still, they’d find themselves in a fourth-and-twelve situation inside the LSU 30. This was where the Auburn Tigers of my childhood would fail and we’d be disappointed, but not overly surprised. This time, though, Jason Campbell calmly rolled out and found Courtney Taylor at the last second just past the sticks for the first down and new life. Three plays later, Taylor again came to the rescue.
Oh, the bewildered looks of Nick Saban and Will Muschamp on the opposite sideline. That was one heck of a coaching staff that also featured Jimbo Fisher at offensive coordinator. Good Lord.
We weren’t out of the woods yet, as Auburn missed the extra point but was given a retry thanks to a newly-instituted leaping penalty. The Tigers booted through the second attempt and led 10-9 with a minute to play. Junior Rosegreen intercepted Jamarcus Russell’s last-second pass to seal the win and Auburn had escaped with a monumental victory.
The win vaulted Auburn into the top ten, and they’d cruise against The Citadel a week later, getting everyone involved in a 33-3 win. It set up a top ten tilt with Tennessee inside Neyland Stadium the first Saturday in October. College Gameday was there, as Tennessee rotated two fantastic freshmen quarterbacks in Erik Ainge and Brent Schaefer. In an interesting move, ESPN got not a Vol legend to visit the show for their final picks, but Sir Charles himself. And Charles had no qualms about sticking up for his guys.
If you watch past the picks and listen to Tubs’ pregame speech, I love his rationale for playing on the road. “No stupid penalties, we on the road, so you know they gonna call ‘em.”
What followed was a complete evisceration of Tennessee. Auburn gave notice to the entire country that they were playing with the big boys. The Tigers led 31-3 at halftime and ended up winning 34-10. Junior Rosegreen picked off four passes on the night, and Ronnie Brown made a poster of Vol safety Jason Allen. It was both one of the loudest atmospheres (right before kickoff) and the quietest (right after halftime) that Neyland Stadium has ever heard.
Auburn moved up to #6 in the polls following that win, and breezed by Louisiana Tech 52-7 the next week. With other teams around the country falling off, the Tigers sat at 6-0 and #4 in the land when Tuberville’s personal bugaboo visited the Plains for what everyone hoped wouldn’t be a classic spoiler game.
The day of the Auburn-Arkansas game, my grandfather was on death’s door. I was at home, while both of my parents waited at his house for the inevitable to happen. Just as kickoff happened, I got the call from my dad that he’d finally passed on after a long battle with cancer. After breaking the news (and he knew I was watching the game), I could hear him walk out of earshot of everyone else and he asked “So, uh... what’s going on with the game?”
I told him Auburn had the ball first and had just run its first play. He told me they’d be over there for a little while making some arrangements and he hung up. The very next play, something miraculous happened.
I like to think my grandfather going out had something to do with that, but it could’ve just been good timing. Anyway, Auburn throttled the Razorbacks, winning 38-20 as Jason Campbell threw for more touchdowns than incompletions.
Auburn enjoyed an easy win over Kentucky the next week by a score of 42-10, then headed to Ole Miss for a Halloween showdown with the SEC West on the line. That’s right, the Tigers could win the division before November, and all they had to do was beat Ole Miss.
The Rebels proved to be a tough home opponent, and stymied the Auburn offense for nearly thirty minutes. Auburn finally broke through on a Campbell sneak at the goal line in the final seconds of the first half, but a 7-0 lead was shaky at best. The Tigers scored on their opening drive of the third quarter, but Ole Miss answered with a long touchdown pass to cut the lead back down to a touchdown. It went like that all night long before Auburn finally pulled away late with two fourth quarter touchdowns for a 35-14 victory.
It wasn’t even November, and everyone else in the SEC West might as well have stopped playing. Auburn had won the division and would play TBD in Atlanta the first weekend in December. There were still much bigger things on the table than a chance at the Tigers’ first SEC title in fifteen years.
Sitting at 9-0 and #3 in the polls behind unbeatens USC and Oklahoma, Auburn needed a statement game against a powerful opponent to truly pull into the discussion for the BCS National Championship. What better opportunity than with #5 Georgia heading to the Plains the next week with an 8-1 record and a national TV audience?
With another College Gameday setup, all eyes were on Auburn to see how the Tigers would fare against their first really good opponent since LSU. Auburn didn’t disappoint.
After a testy first drive from the Bulldogs, Auburn went on autopilot. A cold, relentless machine that ran over and around Georgia in all facets. The Tigers marched down the field on their opening drive to take the lead, then dazzled the crowd with trick plays and murderous defense. Ronnie Brown showed off the hands that helped earn him a high draft grade, catching seven passes for 88 yards and score, while Carlos Rogers probably won the Thorpe Award in this game by locking down Georgia’s passing game all day.
24-6. Auburn. All day.
The win propelled the Tigers into a tie for second with Oklahoma. Auburn was finally in the actual discussion for the national championship, and had overcome the huge lead the Sooners had in the polls. Just beat Alabama, and this could hold up.
Easier said than done.
A trip to Tuscaloosa is never easy, and even when Auburn has been the vastly superior team, the Tigers have failed to run the Tide out of their own building. Same story, different day on November 20th, 2004.
Alabama succeeded in limiting the effectiveness of Auburn’s West Coast passing game, negating Brown and Williams out of the backfield, while the wet conditions evened the playing field just enough to keep Bama in it. The Tide led 6-0 at the half and things were on edge. But just as they’d found ways all year, the Tigers took one shot early in the third quarter, and it hit.
After the big completion to Aromashodu, Auburn took control, scoring three straight touchdowns to lead 21-6 before a late Bama score made it look closer than it was.
The damage had been done. Oklahoma regained its lead in the polls and Auburn fell back to third, but the SEC Championship still loomed the next week with a top fifteen opponent and another chance to show off for the country.
Auburn met Tennessee for the second time that season, making it the second Tigers-Vols meeting in Atlanta as well. Of course, Auburn had massacred Tennessee back in Knoxville two months prior, but today would be different. That didn’t mean that the Tigers still wouldn’t start off in a hurry.
Auburn scored barely 90 seconds in to take an early 7-0 lead, then followed it with another touchdown and it looked like the rout was on again. Tennessee did regain composure enough to cut the deficit in half, and keep within striking distance until Gerald Riggs’ 80-yard burst tied the game at 21 midway through the third quarter.
The Tigers didn’t panic, as Jason Campbell was having one of the games of his career. Two long late touchdown passes sealed the deal as Auburn won 38-28 to claim the first SEC Championship since 1989. Campbell won the game MVP award, and Auburn sat at 12-0. Some people threw oranges onto the field, but the win had a bittersweet taste due to the fact that most already knew Oklahoma or USC would likely have had to lose for the Tigers to move up in the polls.
While the Trojans got to play a weak UCLA team (and squeak by 29-24), and Oklahoma got to wear out a 7-4 Colorado team in the Big Twelve Championship Game, Auburn had beaten a top fifteen team by double digits after already rolling them on the road earlier in the year. I won’t go through the entire case for the Tigers to play in the title game, but it was hefty.
Auburn was “rewarded” with a trip to the Sugar Bowl to face ACC Champ Virginia Tech. In a lackluster game, Auburn took a 16-0 lead before the Hokies finally scored twice in the final seven minutes to make it a close ballgame. The Tigers held on for a 16-13 win and a perfect 13-0 season. It was a dream year, but right in the middle of the celebration was a jilted feeling of being perfect in the nation’s best conference and getting left out.
It would’ve felt better if Oklahoma played USC close in the BCS title game. It would’ve been alright if it seemed like both of those teams were better than Auburn. The fact remains that only in one ballgame all year (LSU) did an opponent have the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead over the Tigers. It’s astonishing when you consider that Tuberville sat on the ball with a big lead and Auburn didn’t score nearly as much as it could’ve. The Tigers had the nation’s best scoring defense, while Oklahoma and USC were taken to the wire several times that year.
Everyone remembers the 55-19 Trojan win, but before that, they nearly lost at 4-7 Stanford, 6-6 UCLA, and 7-5 Oregon State. Not exactly the best of the best. Meanwhile, Oklahoma got scared by Texas A&M and Oklahoma State in back-to-back weeks. Auburn won four games against ten-win teams. OU and USC combined for that many victories against ten-win teams.
Some good did come out of the snub. The SEC got a free pass after that, and finally Florida showed what the league could do in 2006. Auburn would get its own chance just a few short years after that.
Coming Up: What Comes After Perfection?