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Countdown to Kickoff: 6 Days

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“I have descended into college football’s Grand Canyon...”

As of today, we’re officially on Washington game week. We’re at six days to kickoff in Atlanta, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a season where it seems like the football-destitute desert has been as vast.

As we get down to the final days of our official Countdown to Kickoff, we’re starting to hit on some of the really huge plays in Auburn history. Yesterday was Lutzenkirchen’s go-ahead score in Tuscaloosa in 2010, and we’re not treading lightly the rest of the way either.

Today, though, is a little different. With the rest of our articles focusing on championship-winning plays, huge road victories, infamous SEC rivalries, and more, it seems weird that an early season game against Syracuse makes the cut. There’s more to it than just the play at hand.

The Orangemen (before they dropped the ‘men’) came into Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2002 with not much to show. Auburn was a heavy favorite sitting at 3-1, with the lone loss a close defeat to USC and eventual Heisman winner Carson Palmer. Syracuse had lost to BYU and North Carolina, and the lone victory so far had come against Rhode Island.

They sure didn’t look like pushovers to begin the game. The Orangemen built an easy 17-0 lead that Auburn only cut into with a late Damon Duval field goal at the end of the first half. Daniel Cobb had been ineffective at quarterback, and so here we saw the true beginning of Jason Campbell’s career. He and a sophomore tailback named Carnell Williams.

We were familiar with Williams’ finesse and breakaway speed from the previous season. He’d shown flashes of greatness, carrying the ball 41 times in a win at Georgia, before tragically breaking his collarbone after a quick start against Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

In 2002, he’d run through the first four defenses on the schedule before Syracuse came to town, and he’d ramp his effort up another notch at home. In a double-overtime effort, Cadillac (as he had not yet become known colloquially) took 40 carries — and two receptions — for a 202-yard night. He scored two touchdowns, both in overtime, including the game-winner from eight yards out.

Since it’s six days to kickoff, we’ll mention his six-yard touchdown in the second overtime for Auburn, but the whole story today is about his effort entirely. The sophomore put the team on his back and added another chapter to the legend that he’d build as one of Auburn’s greatest backs. Here’s the entire overtime portion of the game for your enjoyment:

What’s more, in a late-evening game that lasted until the wee hours of the morning, Jordan-Hare Stadium was at its best during the comeback and overtime period. We showed off that fantastic home atmosphere that beleaguered top-ranked teams this past season. It was enough that one of Syracuse’s most beloved writers penned this gem afterward. It’s good.

I have descended into college football’s Grand Canyon. I have stood in its Alps. I have gazed at its ocean sunset. I have done all of these things and I’ve been changed forever.

I knew, of course, that we were different up here in Central New York. I understood that autumn Saturdays in our burg have never been given over to any kind of serious sporting fervor. I’ve accepted for a good, long while that a fair amount of our citizens regularly choose to pick apples or seal driveways rather than head to the Carrier Dome to watch the Syracuse University Orangemen at play.

But, Lord have mercy on our college football souls, I’ve come to realize we’re not merely quirky in these parts. And we’re not just overly particular. No, having attended a game in Auburn, Ala. — which is like going to Mass in Rome — I’m convinced that, by comparison, we’re as dead as the flying wedge.

”Let me tell you something,” said Paul Pasqualoni, the SU coach who can recognize bedlam when he is forced to shout above it. “Being in that stadium with all those people — the noise level, the atmosphere — was exciting. It was a lot of fun. To me, it was just spectacular being there.”

He was speaking of Jordan-Hare Stadium, where four days earlier his club had lost to the Auburn Tigers 37-34 in an environment that was equal parts Woodstock, Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve and Madonna’s last wedding. And the Crimson Tide boys, those rascals from the other side of the state, weren’t even in town, to say nothing of the Bulldogs, Gators or Razorbacks.

Nah, it was just the Orangemen, a non-league bunch from somewhere up north … with a losing record yet. But it didn’t matter. This, because the cherished Tigers were on the other side, and that was enough for those Alabama locals to respond the way the French did when Patton’s army showed up in Paris.

I missed my wife’s birthday so I could cheer on my beloved alma mater against Syracuse,” Brent Miller wrote in an e-mail addressed to me following the three-overtime affair. “But you know what? I would have been there if our opponent had been the state of New York’s worst high school team.”

”Country, God and college football are usually our top three passions,” e-mailed another Auburn guy, Steve Fleming. “But not always in that order.”

”I grew up in Denver in a family with season tickets to the Broncos games,” e-mailed yet another believer, Rick Pavek. “I call Auburn home now and, take my word for this, Broncomania is nothing like Tigermania.”

The point is, with the Orangemen returning to the gray Dome that is so often lifeless to play Big East Conference foe Pittsburgh on Saturday, it’s clear that somebody’s not getting it. Either the Auburn faithful — and people like them in Knoxville and South Bend and Lincoln and Gainesville and Columbus and Austin and elsewhere — are far too crazed, or we’re way too cool.

Listen, down there in eastern Alabama they pass out full-color, high-gloss, 22-by-17-inch, two-sided, fold-out pamphlets titled, “The 2002 Guide To Game Day At Auburn University.” And on Page 2 of each can be found the announcement that nobody is allowed to begin tailgating until 4 p.m. the day before the game.

You can’t be anything but envious,” said Jake Crouthamel, the Syracuse athletic director who was a wide-eyed witness to all of the SU-Auburn doings. “You can’t be anything but envious when you have that kind of support. I mean, there were 84,000 people in the seats. And the RVs and house trailers were lined up five miles outside of town.

”When you talk about the epitome of what the college football experience is all about … that’s it. Auburn is the epitome. You couldn’t possibly be unaware of the spectacle, even if you were trying to be unaware.”

The orange-clad zealots, who are in their seats fully 30 minutes prior to kickoff, thunder through choreographed cheers. The band, which is saluted upon its arrival by the big house with a standing ovation, blares. The PA system, which continuously blasts the sounds of a growling tiger, pipes in songs by the Dixie Chicks and interviews with the Auburn coaches.

Before the game, there is the great Tiger Walk during which the Auburn players march along Donahue Street through thousands of people, some of whom weep, and into the stadium. After the game, there is the mass papering of famous Toomer’s Corner downtown. And between all of that, a golden eagle circles the place before landing on the field to a deafening roar.

And us? Um, let’s see. We can’t fill 49,000 seats. We debate, ad nauseam, standing-vs.-sitting in the Dome. We give our tickets to takers at the door who had to be schooled in the art of courtliness. We regularly vacate the joint long before the final gun. We allow, thanks to a good-idea-gone-bad, a bunch of vulgar louts planted in a thing called “The O-Zone” to chant phrases you’d never say in front of Mom at the dinner table.

In other words to compare our college football experience to that of Auburn (and a lot of other places) is to compare a skillet of beans to a plate of Chilean sea bass. And while that might sound harsh, it doesn’t make the words any less true.

Believe me on this. Please. I have descended into college football’s Grand Canyon. I have stood in its Alps. I have gazed at its ocean sunset. I have attended a game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala. And I’ve been changed forever.

That’s from Bud Poliquin, a Syracuse writer, who reflected in 2014 that it was the only article he’d ever written that got responses from every continent on the globe. Go to Auburn, be forever changed. It’s true. We all know it is.

Tomorrow is Monday of game week. There are only five more days without a little ting in your tang tang, folks. We’ve made it. War Eagle.