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Auburn-Georgia: The Past is Prologue (presented by The Wishbone)

Van leads off this installment of the Wishbone with his personal recollections on the Auburn-Georgia series.  John chimes in here and there with some notes of his own.  In the next installment, coming in a day or two, they’ll break down the strategic and tactical dimensions of this year’s contest.

In the 1990s, Georgia put their coaches’ pictures on the tickets. Little-known fact: Uga and a cheerleader actually co-coached the team in 1997.

I have always considered the “modern era” of Auburn football to have begun in 1982, and I chose that year for at least three important reasons: 1) It was Pat Dye’s second year, but the first in which he had a really good team with a winning record and a bowl win; 2) it was Bo Jackson’s freshman year, and in my view the advent of Bo marks the beginning of modern Auburn football; and 3) it was the first year I really paid close attention to the team, following the games on television (or more often via Jim Fyffe’s radio broadcasts).

So here, then, I present a look back at the more consequential and eventful games in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry—from a more personal perspective.

The 1982 game will always be the answer to a great trivia question: Did Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker ever face one another in a game?  Indeed they did.  We don’t have the exact yardage totals handy, but you can get the gist of this clash by NetFlixing the Incredible Hulk movie and just fast-forwarding to the Green Goliath’s big throw-down with the Abomination. The Tigers played a monster of a game—and were throwing into the Dawgs’ end zone on the final play for the win—but Georgia held the Tigers off and eked out a narrow victory on the Plains.

Then Walker turned pro, and Bo went on to dominate the extremely hard-nosed 1983 matchup in Athens.  This 13-7 victory ended Georgia’s run of SEC titles as the Tigers ultimately seized the “team of the decade” designation away from Athens and to Auburn in the eyes of many.  It was also the first time I ever saw the opposing team’s cheerleaders crying their eyes out on television.

Two years later, in 1985, Bo bravely battled his way through the Georgia game on national television—with not a few Heisman voters watching.  Late in the game, the announcers revealed that he was playing with broken ribs.  The previous year, Jerry Gray of Texas had nearly ripped Bo’s arm off at the shoulder, and Bo had basically told the trainers, “Staple the &#% thing back on—or not; I’ll play without it!”  So a few broken ribs were no problem for the mighty Bo.  He ran for a ton of yards and Auburn won; a few weeks later, he had his Heisman.  This was the game that put him over the top, just as it had Pat Sullivan, fourteen years earlier.

Can we safely assume that all good Auburn fans (and Georgia fans) know the story of 1986?  Auburn was playing for a share of the SEC title and possibly a Sugar Bowl berth; their only loss had been a miracle comeback by the Gators in Gainesville a couple of weeks earlier.   Georgia was playing without their starting quarterback.  So of course the Dawgs led the game late.  A furious effort by Brent Fullwood on the ground and Burger-to-Tillman through the air (in what was probably Lawyer’s breakout game) could have won it, but Fullwood’s late touchdown run was called back on a phantom penalty.  The Dawgs got the win, stormed the field, began ripping up sections of the turf, and refused to leave; so the AU officials turned the stadium’s water cannons on the fans on the field and still in the stands.  Georgia’s howls of protest didn’t die down for months, but Auburn made the best of it, with Aubie showing up the next year brandishing a garden hose with a pistol-sprayer, and T-shirts everywhere bearing the catchphrase the game will always be remembered for:  “Nothing Stinks Like a Wet Dawg.” [Ed. note – read the story of the man who ordered the hose-y hit here.]

John chimes in with his memories of the 1987 game:

The 1987 clash in Sanford Stadium, the year following the “hosing” incident, was a great game.  Auburn fans showed up in Athens wearing ponchos and rain gear, and UGA fans responded by shooting us with water guns.  Georgia was ranked eighth going into the game and Auburn was ranked twelfth. The defense performed well, Lawyer Tillman made a big play and Auburn pulled out the win.   Important lesson learned from this game:  When Auburn is ahead in Athens, get down early to rip off a big piece of the hedge to bring home.  Later in the game they station quite a few police around the hedges.  (I got my piece but others waited too long and were denied.)  The other best moment from this visit?  After spending the evening at several favorite watering holes, we staggered back across the UGA campus.  I noticed a large bell on a tower with a rope hanging down.  A UGA student told me, “It is rung after victories.”  In my 3 a.m., out-partying-all-night state, it made perfect sense to me to go running across the lawn, grab the rope and yank on it with all my weight, ringing that bell as loud as I could, disturbing everyone on campus.  It made sense at the time – because Auburn had won!

Now back to Van:

Even Pat Dye said the 1989 team didn’t really come together for most of the season (maybe he lost his pants a few times along the way, throwing off the game plans)—until they pulled off a dominating 20-3 win in Athens.  That’s pretty late in the season to be finally coming together… unless the game after it is the “First Time Ever” with Alabama in Jordan-Hare, also known as the single most important Iron Bowl of all.

The only memorable things about the 1990 game, aside from being another Auburn win in the series, was that I was a senior and I believed it was my last time as a student to see the Tigers play in Jordan-Hare (laughable in hindsight, given my years of graduate school to come), and sending Vince Dooley into coaching retirement with a loss to his alma mater.  John and I had staked out the best seats in the student section all season long for our little crowd of friends, and this game was a great capper for us, rounding out a season that had also included a huge come-from-behind draw with Johnny Majors’ Tennessee and a spectacular last-second win over Florida State.

John and I watched the 1992 game on television in his apartment in northern Virginia—we were both in graduate school at Georgetown that year.  We watched Auburn drive down the field in the final seconds, trailing by four, only to have time expire as the Tigers attempted to get off one last play from the UGA goal line after a bobbled handoff prevented a touchdown on the previous play.  Ray Goff was signaling frantically for his defensive players to lie down on the ball and not let the referees reset it, and for some unknown reason the zebras never bothered to stop the clock for that purpose.  The Dawgs never would have stopped James Bostic on the dive, but it was not to be.  We watched helplessly and dejectedly, a thousand miles away, as this all transpired; then we spent the evening drinking beer and cursing the refs.

By the time of the 1993 game, I was back in Auburn and the Tigers were rolling along at a shocking 9-0 in Terry Bowden’s first season.  We’d beaten Florida earlier in the year and the team just had an aura about it; somehow we all just knew we were going to find a way to win out.  So confident was I, I had about a dozen blue t-shirts printed up before we traveled to Athens for the game that read, “10 and 0 and One to Go!”  When Auburn went up 42-28 late in the fourth, my friends and I in the upper deck of Sanford Stadium busted the bag open and spread ‘em around, to the annoyance of the Dawgs fans all around us.  Part of the shouting match that ensued included a UGA fan noting that Auburn was not going to a bowl game.  One of my friends reminded him in turn that while UGA was, unlike probation-shackled but undefeated Auburn, legally eligible, the Dawgs weren’t going to a bowl game simply because their team sucked.

In the 1994 game in Jordan-Hare, the Bulldogs accomplished what two bouts with Spurrier’s Gators had been unable to do; what an LSU team with a big fourth-quarter lead had been unable to do; what Alabama had been unable to do.  They ended Terry Bowden’s magical twenty-game winning streak. Matt Hawkins missed a field goal at the end that would have won it.  Noted philosopher Ray Goff commented afterward, “You don’t just win all the time.”  Certainly you would know, Ray.  Meanwhile, I knew immediately that I shouldn’t have had a “Red Dog” beer at Niffer’s before the game.

The 1995 Auburn-Georgia game in Athens was the coldest football game I’ve ever attended, or at least it felt that way to me.  I blame the weatherman. The forecast called for moderate temperatures and rain, so I dressed in a very thin jacket and short sleeve shirt.  As it turned out, never a drop of rain fell, but the thermometer plunged.  Toward the end, as Auburn was hanging on for the victory, Georgia fans began to rip out whole sections of the fabled Sanford hedges—which was actually okay with the authorities, because the field had to be widened ahead of the next summer’s Olympic soccer matches, and they were planning to rip out the hedges anyway and replant new ones the next year.  I was so cold by then, if I’d had a match I’d have set that celebrated shrubbery on fire.  Oh, and then we couldn’t find our car after the game, so we wandered around the darkened Athens campus, totally lost, for something like an hour as the temperature dropped lower and lower.  But it was okay; I didn’t mind it all that much.  Somehow, winning makes that kind of stuff a lot more bearable.

The 1996 game was in the bag—a victory!—with UGA out of timeouts and the clock trickling away.  And then an Auburn player touched the ball, causing the ref to blow the clock dead and reposition it.  In the time that it took to do this, Georgia’s offense lined up again and got off one last play—a touchdown pass that triggered the first overtime in SEC history.  The game had taken at turn for the weird earlier on, when Uga the Overrated Mascot nearly spayed and/or neutered Auburn WR Robert Baker the Coke Deal Maker as he ran out of bounds.  (Who knew Uga had been given DEA training?)  Several OT sessions later, with both teams scoring almost at will, the situation had grown nearly unbearable.  It was a night ESPN game to begin with, meaning late start and longer than average commercial breaks; but once you added in all that overtime plus the time change at the Georgia border, we were looking at getting back to Gwinnett County at about four in the morning.  I actually looked to my companion and said, “At this point, I almost don’t care if we win or lose—I just want this over!”  A few plays later, when the Dawg defense stopped Dameyune Craig on fourth down, I had my wish.  Unfortunately.  Me and my big mouth.

Aside from an Auburn victory and 45 points courtesy of Craig and company, the most memorable thing about the 1997 game for me was the method by which I gained entry to Sanford Stadium.  Now, listen—I’m not entirely proud of this today.  But you have to understand, it was Auburn-Georgia and so I did what I had to do.  I had for some reason waited until almost the last minute to decide to go to the game, keeping my streak of attending AU-UGA games in Athens alive for another cycle, but I was alone and didn’t have a ticket.  So I put on my Georgetown University windbreaker (with its bulldog logo—you see where this is going, right?) over my Auburn jersey and zipped it up tight to my neck, hiding my AU cap under it.  Then I scalped a ticket from a friendly Dawg fan outside the stadium right before kickoff.

The poor guy.  I wasn’t very subtle or tactful.  As soon as the money and ticket changed hands, I unzipped my jacket to reveal the jersey and put on my hat.  He rolled his eyes and visibly sunk inward, perhaps comprehending the great disservice he had just performed for Bulldog Nation.  Indeed, for the next three-plus hours, I gave that particular red-clad section of Sanford Stadium my best.  Probably three hundred faithful Dawg fans were looking daggers at me the entire time.  Thank goodness (and Craig to Karsten Bailey) we won, or I might not have made it out of there alive.

In 1999 a pretty mediocre Auburn team that ended the season at 5-6 rolled into Athens and absolutely shellacked a Georgia squad that was headed toward an 8-4 record and an Outback Bowl win.  The Tigers, with virtually no running game, somehow led 31-0 at halftime and then scored on their opening possession of the second half to go up 38-0, at which point Georgia fans were streaming for the exits.   This was possibly the greatest game for Auburn WR Ronney Daniels, who (on the receiving end of Ben Leard’s passes) simply could not be stopped by the Bulldog defense.

I attended the game with a good friend who graduated from Georgia, and he paid me beforehand for tickets for him and his AU-fan girlfriend.  I bought the tickets weeks before the game, and then discovered on game day that I had somehow misplaced them.  (Three years later, while moving to a new apartment, I actually found the three original tickets in a little envelope in my desk drawer—right where I had put them in 1999.)

So I had to hurry from Lawrenceville to Athens in order to get there in time to find some replacements. In my haste, I made a wrong turn—hard to do when you realize Highway 316 runs directly from Lawrenceville to Athens!—and didn’t realize it until I neared the outskirts of Conyers.  If you know anything about Georgia geography, you’ll know this is not good, particularly when time is of the essence.  I finally reached the UGA campus shortly before game time, frantically located my friend, found more tickets, and got into the stadium just in time for kickoff.

During the game, and particularly early on, as the Tigers were absolutely dominating the Dawgs and simply rolling up and down the field, my friend had to endure constant high fives being exchanged over his head by me and his girlfriend.  I’ve always felt bad about that, because he was so classy about it.  But this was such a shocking win, so out-of-the-blue against a good Georgia team, that even now I can’t quite believe how we blew them out.  It was just one of those nights.  As with the 1995 game, sometimes a win on the field makes everything else not nearly as bad or as important.

The 2000 game was the Rudi Johnson Experience, and also served to break the long streak of the visiting team winning.  It took overtime, but on this OT occasion the Tigers prevailed, pushing the Tigers one step closer to their second SEC Championship Game appearance.  Unfortunately for me, this game also marked the breaking of my own streak of attendance—it was the first time I missed seeing an AU-UGA game in person since 1992—because I’d promised to attend a friend’s music recital.  No, I can’t quite believe it, either.  I didn’t even get to watch the game live; I recorded it on a VCR and desperately avoided hearing anything about it until I could get home and watch.  Rudi’s game-winning touchdown came (for me) at around 2 a.m., reminding me of the end of the other OT game in 1996—except that it seemed like that game actually did end around 2 a.m.

If 2000 was the Rudi Johnson Show, 2001 was the Cadillac Williams Extravaganza.  Coach Tuberville and the offensive staff had been leaning on Caddy more and more during the season, mostly because neither Jason Campbell nor Daniel Cobb could quite get the passing game working.  By the Georgia game, Caddy was the offense, getting something like forty carries in the win.  This was the game where, afterward, Tubby admonished SEC rookie coach Mark Richt that he’d never win in this conference without running the ball a lot.  An utterly exhausted Caddy could definitely attest that night that Tubby had no problem doing so.

I think of the 2002 game and I still get a little sick at my stomach, for several reasons.  Auburn was having an up-and-down season, losing to Ron Zook’s Florida when we should have won but somehow absolutely demolishing Nick Saban’s LSU.  This was the year of Bobby Petrino as Offensive Coordinator and the Cobb/Campbell monster throwing to a bevy of freshman receivers.  It was also the year that Caddy broke his leg against the Gators and we all discovered that Ronnie Brown Lives!

Georgia that year was arguably one of the best SEC teams of the decade.  Their only loss was an inexplicable egg they laid against Florida; otherwise this pack of Dawgs would have been in the running for the national championship.  Despite their quality, though, the Tigers had them on the ropes late.  One more first down run from Ronnie Brown and the game would have been over.  But Ronnie had gotten hurt a little earlier—he would miss the Iron Bowl, opening the door for the celebrated Tre Smith Miracle—and try as he might, he couldn’t convert.  Georgia got the ball back, and a short time later we all got to experience the misery called “70-X Takeoff,” a play that resulted in Michael Johnson outleaping Horace Willis for the game-winner.

This particular play has gone down in Southeastern Conference history, though few people seem to realize it.  As far as I can tell, it was the first time (and perhaps the only time) that a single play in a single game changed both participants in the SEC Championship Game.  If Willis had knocked that ball down, Auburn would have won the SEC West, and would have faced the Florida Gators in the Georgia Dome.  Instead, the Dawgs claimed the East title and faced Arkansas.  Crazy.  (A Gator friend actually emailed me after that game, complaining about our failure to defeat Georgia and thus put Florida into the title game.  He railed that the Gators would have made short work of Arkansas.  He backed off quickly when I pointed out that Florida would have faced Auburn instead of the Hawgs.)

The next morning I found that my car had been broken into and my stereo stolen.  The humiliation was complete.  I sold the car a couple of weeks later, and I can’t say it wasn’t entirely because the memories associated with it had simply become too tainted.  When I looked at that old Honda, all I saw was, “70-X Takeoff.”  It had to go.  Think of it as an exorcism.

I don’t recall the 2003 game fondly, either.  It was the culmination of a bitterly disappointing season in which we started the year riding high, amid national proclamations that we might win the national championship.  Of course we ended up farther from even an appearance in the SEC Title Game than in any other year of our great 2000-2007 run.  Auburn was absolutely inept in this game, the Dawg fans in Sanford Stadium were merciless, and I left at halftime.  That was the first time I’d ever left an Auburn game before the end.  I was there by myself, amid a swarm of irate Auburn students who alternated between criticizing the team and yelling insults at the Georgia students nearby, and I simply couldn’t stand it anymore.  Horrible, horrible.

The opposite side of that coin, of course, was the 2004 game in Jordan-Hare.  Most anyone reading these words understands the significance of that game.  Georgia was a top ten team, their only loss coming (somewhat surprisingly) to eventual East champs Tennessee earlier in the year.  We needed to beat them and beat them thoroughly in order to gain whatever advantage might be gained over #1 USC or #2 Oklahoma, who were both stubbornly refusing to lose.

Beat them thoroughly we did.  Some have called this the single greatest performance by an Auburn team in the modern era, and that may well be true. Cadillac Williams even passed for a touchdown in this game, and Georgia would have been shut out but for a controversial score just before the end.  I still remember my dad being absolutely furious that Georgia had scored.  I tried to point out to him that we were now 10-0 and that we’d totally crushed them in a way we rarely had in my memory.  He didn’t care.  “I wanted to shut them out!” he barked—and he was right.  Bless that man’s heart, for it is in the right place.

I ended up watching the 2005 game on television in a sports bar in Lawrenceville, the only Auburn fan adrift in a sea of red and black.  I’d just gotten back from a couple of months living in Singapore (long story) and was out of work and broke, so I didn’t feel right about driving down 316 and trying to find a ticket with money I didn’t have.  Oh, if only I’d thrown caution to the wind!  Fourth down… Cox to Aromashodu… Fumble…  Recovery… Clock runs down… Field goal… WIN!

And that, my friends, believe it or not, was the last time we beat Georgia.

The 2006 game was a disaster, of course.  My wife and I had just started dating a short time earlier and this was the first Auburn game she ever watched.  She did not see me at my best that day.  To my embarrassment, my confident pronouncements to her about my Tigers’ national title aspirations utterly evaporated in the wake of Matthew Stafford’s carpet bombing of the Auburn secondary.  As for the three games since then— 2007-2009 —together they constitute one continuous and awful blur for me.  All I remember from any of them is Auburn doing fairly well at first, only to see Georgia roaring back and finishing the Tigers off late.

John adds a word of warning here:

Going back over these games, it seems that this series, more than any other Auburn plays, is one where the lower ranking team can win the game.   A quick review of the games since 1982 reveals upsets in 1983, 1986, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2006, and possibly in other years.  That should serve as a warning to this Auburn team—do not take Georgia lightly because of their record, or the fact that they lost to the worst team in the Big 12. Stay focused.  This is Georgia.

Van wraps things up:

The Oldest Rivalry in the Deep South, indeed—and one filled with history, for the teams and the players and the universities, but also for each fan who has been a part of it along the way, each Auburn Man or Woman who lent his or her voice to the din of the crowd; who helped to collectively will the team to victory in a given year.  This is a series filled with upsets and championship denials on both sides; derailings aplenty.  This is a series that flashes a blinding “Warning! Warning!” in letters twenty miles high to any team for which hubris has become a possibility.  Championships that one or the other team has just begun to reach out to embrace have a way of evaporating to nothingness for the favored team under the harsh lights of Sanford Stadium or Jordan-Hare.

Enough of that!  For the Auburn-Georgia series—a series all about history—the past is prologue.  It’s time to reverse the recent curse.  It’s time for Auburn to reclaim the upper hand in this rivalry, which as of now stands with the Tigers holding a microscopically slender one-game lead after more than a century of epic battles.  It’s time for Auburn to beat the Dawgs with a rolled-up newspaper—preferably a newspaper filled with exciting photos of Cam Newton running roughshod over the rest of the SEC competition.  It’s time to take care of business against Georgia—business long deferred and now more than overdue.

Plain and simple:  It’s time to Beat Georgia.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.

About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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