When I was putting together my SEC Power Poll ballot this morning and trying to come up with a witty, one-sentence encapsulation of how rare and special the WVU win was for the weekly compilation post, I realized something: I can’t remember the last time Auburn beat a nonconference team this good in the regular season.
So I pulled out my ESPN College Football Encyclopedia and started doing some research, and it turns out the reason I couldn’t think of the last time Auburn beat a bowl-bound, power-conference, non-league opponent like West Virginia was because it happened when I was 12 years old.
As commenter Gabe has already noted, the year was 1990 and Pat Dye was still on the home sidelines when No. 5 Auburn hosted No. 7 Florida St. The Tigers came away with a 20-17 victory* as the ‘Noles headed towards the inaugural Blockbuster Bowl. That was almost 19 years ago, now, but yes Virginia, that was the last time Auburn beat a major conference team outside the SEC that finished its season in a bowl.
How has it been that long? This is how:
Weak scheduling. For the most part I think Auburn’s nonconference schedules under Tommy Tuberville and Terry Bowden were up to par, but Auburn never had the best sense of timing. Bowden’s nonconference opponents in his famous 20-game streak? Samford, Southern Miss, New Mexico St., UL-Monroe, East Tennessee St., East Carolina.
I don’t have to tell you about the 2004 slate, but Tubby also faced Wyoming, Northern Illinois, and La. Tech in his division-winning 2000 season.
Whiffs. Auburn played several quality nonconference opponents in the Tuberville era: Dwight Freeney’s Syracuse team in ’01, USC and Georgia Tech in mid-decade home-and-homes, surprising South Florida in ’07. Too bad Auburn lost every one of those games.
Bowden had far fewer opportunities, but did kick off the ’98 season by getting shut out by a 9-3 Virginia team.
Unpleasant surprises. Over the course of the Bowden and Tubby tenures Auburn beat several big- (or at least, medium-) name teams that wound up having weaker-than-expected seasons. ’02 Syracuse, ’06 Washington St., and ’07 Kansas State all had off-years by then-current program standards, and even Dye’s last nonconference victory of note–14-10 over Texas in Week 3 1991–came over a Longhorns squad that would finish 5-6 after going 10-2 the season before.
There’s also the strange case of ’96 Virginia, who Bowden defeated 28-17 in the season opener. The Cavs would go on to a 7-4 record–but still get left out in the cold come bowl season.
So: assuming West Virginia plays up to their potential–or, really, anywhere close to it–and qualifies for a bowl bid, Auburn fans will have seen something last Saturday that they won’t have seen for nearly two decades. And I’m not even talking about the rain.
*As I’m sure any seasoned Auburn fan could tell you, it was two weeks later 6-0-1 Auburn would head to Gainesville as the No. 4 team in the country and come back with a 48-7 woodshedding at the hands of new Gators coach Steve Spurrier. Dye would go 10-11-1 the next two years and that was that–making the Florida St. win not just Auburn’s last great in-season nonconference moment, but the last great moment in Dye’s career. Worth noting.
And while we’re here, that game in the Swamp has to be one of the defining moments in SEC history, doesn’t it? It’s not often where you see the baton being directly passed from the guy who dominated the previous decade to the guy who would go on to dominate the next one, right?