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The Ten Best Auburn Games that Never Happened

Maybe '86? '93? '99?

First up in our series of “Ten Best” columns is a look at ten Auburn football games that never actually took place.  They could’ve been, and maybe should’ve been, but none of them ever actually were.

We don’t make any attempt to rank these—they’re pretty much in random order—though the last one down below here may have been the most consequential, believe it or not.  Commenters are encouraged to give us the order you see them in.

Commenters are also welcome to add other games we may have missed.  This is the ten we came up with when mulling the topic over this week, but we’re sure there are lots more—particularly back in the pre-Pat Dye days, into the depths of which our memories unfortunately do not extend.

The 1986/87 Orange Bowl
After two somewhat disappointing efforts in 1984 and 1985 (and nothing makes AU seasons more disappointing than losing Iron Bowls that should never have been lost), Auburn rebounded in 1986 by unveiling a high-flying (for its day) aerial attack in place of the old “Bo left/right/middle” approach.  QB Jeff Burger aired it out to receivers like Trey Gainous and Lawyer Tillman while the ground game scarcely lost a step in the capable hands (and feet) of Bo’s so-called “nuclear sub,” Brent Fullwood.

Only two narrow, frustrating and heartbreaking losses kept the Tigers from racking up a perfect regular season in 1986: Kerwin Bell somehow hobbled into the end zone to bring the Gators back for a miraculous 18-17 win in Gainesville, and the referees called back a late Fullwood touchdown run that would have beaten Georgia.  (For more on the “Wet Dawg” game, see “Auburn-Georgia: The Past is Prologue.”)

After the famous “Reverse to Victory” win over Alabama, the Tigers found themselves at 4-2 in the SEC and out of the running for the Sugar Bowl—but at 9-2 overall and in prime position for a New Year’s Day bowl.  Pat Dye quickly accepted a bid to play Southern Cal in the Citrus Bowl—only to have the Orange Bowl come along afterward and ask Auburn to participate in their game instead.  Dye stuck to his word and Auburn went on to defeat Southern Cal in Orlando, 16-7, while Arkansas accepted an at-large bid to play Big Eight champs Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

Could the Tigers have fared better than the Razorbacks, who gave up 42 points to the Sooners and managed only a single TD as the clock expired?  We will never know—but Auburn vs. Oklahoma in the 1986/87 Orange Bowl remains one of the greatest games Auburn never played.

The 1988/89 Sugar Bowl vs. Notre Dame

This one is a simple case of the “if onlys.”

If only Auburn had kept LSU from scoring that last-minute touchdown and making an ugly, 6-0 win into a hideous, 7-6 “Earthquake,” the Tigers would have likely finished the 1988 season undefeated and would have been sitting there in New Orleans on January 2, awaiting a matchup with the top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish—and with the national championship on the line.

Instead, that Lou Holtz-coached and Tony Rice-led Notre Dame squad went on to play and defeat a sub-par West Virginia team for the title, while a disappointed Auburn fell to surging Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, 13-7.

At least one Auburn player would later say that the LSU “Earthquake Game” was what galvanized the Tigers to play so well the rest of the way—so perhaps Auburn needed that loss in order to end up SEC Champions and get to New Orleans.  Then again, maybe a win in Baton Rouge would have done the trick just as well—and led what was arguably one of the finest Tigers squads in history to the brink of a national championship.

And the Tigers would have won that game.  Their offense wasn’t bad, with Reggie Slack giving to James Joseph and Stacey Danley out of the backfield and throwing to a bevy of talented receivers such as Lawyer Tillman, Freddie Weygand, Duke Donaldson, and Alexander Wright, not to mention tight end Walter Reeves.*  Meanwhile, Auburn’s 1988 defense was one of the greatest in school history, allowing just over seven points per game.  They allowed a mere seventy-nine points over the entire regular season.  Didn’t the 2010 National Champion Tigers’ defense allow that many points to Arkansas alone?

The 1993 SEC Championship Game

Everyone knows the deal here, right?  Auburn finished the 1993 season at 11-0 in Terry Bowden’s first campaign on the Plains, but had been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for any post-season play—including the conference championship game.  Thus Auburn stayed home and watched the team they had just beaten, Western Division runners-up Alabama, play and lose to the Florida Gators—a team the Tigers had already beaten once (38-35, in Auburn), and would beat again when they played one another the following year (36-33, in Gainesville).  Had the Tigers been allowed to play in the postseason and had they defeated the Gators again, Terry Bowden might well have faced his father, Bobby Bowden, for the first time —in the Sugar Bowl, with the National Championship on the line.

The 1986 Florida State Game

Auburn played Florida State in Jordan-Hare in 1983, 1985, 1987, and 1990, and in Tallahassee in 1984 and 1989, along with a Sugar Bowl meeting after the 1988 season.  Auburn won this epic mini-series with a record of four wins and three losses, and each of the games was memorable in one way or another.

The 1984 game was a track meet–the two teams scored back and forth until time expired with Auburn up, 42-41, and FSU on the Tigers goal line.  The 1985 edition looked to be a repeat until Auburn pulled away late, in a fashion very reminiscent of the 2010 Arkansas game, and won 59-27.  FSU returned the favor with a blowout win of its own in 1987. Auburn’s wins in 1983 and 1990** were by very narrow margins, as were Florida State’s 1988 and 1989 wins.

The only year between 1983 and 1990 in which the two didn’t meet was 1986. What might have happened in a hypothetical Tigers-Seminoles clash that season?

That year was a rebound season for the Tigers, who had come off a thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to finish the year (and Bo Jackson’s career) at 8-4.  For 1986, Coach Pat Dye put Pat Sullivan in charge of quarterbacks, and the result was a very decent passing game led by junior QB Jeff Burger.  As has been mentioned elsewhere in this column, the Tigers ended up at 10-2 and very narrowly missed out on a Sugar Bowl berth.

With Mickey Andrews in charge of the defense, the Seminoles would at last have a unit on that side of the ball to rival or surpass their fantastic offensive prowess setting the stage for the epic run of success the program enjoyed between 1987 and 2000.  But in 1986 things hadn’t quite jelled yet, and the Seminoles finished at 7-4-1.  They lost on the road at Nebraska, Michigan, and Miami, and at home to Florida; their tie came against North Carolina at home in the third game.  None of their wins, against the likes of Wichita State, Southern Miss,and Louisville, appears all that impressive.

Given this evidence, one must assume the Tigers would have gotten the better of the ‘Noles that year–perhaps by a wide margin.  One imagines Burger throwing for a lot of yards and Brent Fullwood and Tommie Agee running for even more.  Of course, we can never know for certain, and the series did have the propensity for producing eye-popping outcomes in both directions.  But it would have been nice to deliver one more solid beat-down to the up-and-coming ‘Noles, and to extend the Tigers’ winning margin in the modern series to more than one game.  The thinking here is that this would have happened.

The 1999 Florida State Game

With the dismissal/resignation of Terry Bowden partway through the 1998 season, Auburn lost all incentive to begin the following year’s campaign against Bowden’s dad’s pre-season #1-ranked Florida State team.  New head coach Tommy Tuberville, seeing the rather shoddy state of the squad he was inheriting, either asked for or went along with the AU Athletic Department’s decision to buy Auburn’s way out of that opening game.  The contract had stipulated that either team could pay a lump sum up front and cancel the game, and that’s what Auburn did.

The elder Bowden at first publicly supported the decision, commenting at the time that it didn’t make sense to him to still play the game, since the only reason he had even considered putting Auburn back on the schedule again (after a run of six regular-season games and a bowl in the 1980s, with AU winning four of them) was the novelty of having father coach against son.  But, predictably, as the jackals of the media descended to pick Auburn and Tuberville apart as “War Chickens,” Bobby B. began to change his tune and to decry the Tigers for opting out of the game.

Florida State went on to win its second national championship that season, while Auburn barely survived its opening game with the team that replaced the Seminoles on the schedule: Appalachian State.  One more win that season and Auburn would have made a bowl game; only extremely narrow last-second losses to Ole Miss and Miss State kept them out.  Perhaps the powers-that-were in the AD’s office knew what they were doing, after all.

The 2001 LSU Game—in September

Yes, Auburn did play LSU in 2001—on December 1, two weeks after the Iron Bowl!  In fact, it amounted to a de facto SEC Western Division Championship Game, since the winner would advance to Atlanta to play Tennessee.  But the game was not originally scheduled for that date, or even that month.  It was originally to have happened in mid-September, and was derailed by the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC of September 11.

Auburn lost a tough, 27-14 contest to the Bayou Bengals in December—but what would have happened if the two teams had met on the original date of September 15?  Remember, the 2001 Iron Bowl was one of the worst ever for Auburn; the Tigers managed to give up thirty-one points and score only seven in their second consecutive loss to Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium.  Even with a week off, the demoralizing effects of that game had to linger into the LSU contest.  With a win over LSU in September, the Iron Bowl loss wouldn’t have affected the Tigers’ fate—and they’d have had their rematch in Atlanta with the Vols three years earlier than it ultimately came.  Could they have beaten a UT team potentially headed for a national championship matchup that year?  LSU did!

The 1993/94 Sugar Bowl or Citrus Bowl?

There’s no way of knowing to which bowl game the 1993 Auburn Tigers would have been invited, simply because they first would have had to face Florida in a rematch game in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game.  If they had won, they’d have been 12-0 and surely in the Sugar Bowl with perhaps Florida State opposite them, the title on the line.  If they’d lost to the Gators, though, they’d have been 11-1 and not fallen too far—probably to the Citrus Bowl, in place of Tennessee, although they might have been chosen as an at-large team in place of Miami for the Fiesta Bowl against Arizona.  That could have been interesting.

The 1994/95 Peach Bowl?

For the 1994 season, however, the options a bowl-bound Auburn team would have faced at 9-1-1 were a bit more restricted.  The likelihood, as we see it, is for the Tigers to have landed in the Peach Bowl (in place of 8-4 Mississippi State) against a 9-3 North Carolina State.  You’d think they would have had a better option than that, but digging through the bowl matchups from that season doesn’t really produce a lot of better options.  Maybe they could have replaced Tennessee in the Gator Bowl against Virginia Tech?  Here’s the bowl list for that year—where do you think the Tigers would have landed?

The 2003 Georgia Tech Game in the Georgia Dome

Auburn played Georgia Tech in 2003 for the first time since their ongoing series had ended with the 1987 matchup.  The Yellowjackets defeated the Tigers, 17-3, in a season in which the Tigers mostly struggled on offense with a coordinator-by-committee approach that attempted unsuccessfully to replicate the success and the strategies of Bobby Petrino the previous season.

The game was not originally to have been played at Grant Field, however.  That stadium was under renovation at the time, and the plan was to have been for the Tigers and Yellowjackets to meet in the Georgia Dome that season, with a 50/50 ticket split, followed by a home-and-home arrangement for 2004 and 2005.  Tech changed the deal so that they could open the season with Auburn in their expanded facility in 2003, and the 2004 game was dropped entirely.  The 2005 game was a home matchup for the Tigers.

Aside from the disappointment of fans who had hoped to watch the two teams face off before an evenly-divided Georgia Dome in 2003, one other thing perhaps merits a moment’s thought:  The Yellowjackets defeated the Tigers in both actual contests—in 2003 and again in 2005.  And 2004 was Auburn’s perfect season.  What would have happened if the Tigers had faced Tech that year?  Auburn fans doubtlessly scoff at this; the 2004 team was a juggernaut, well-coached and hungry.  And yet, and yet, and yet… you never know.  And, because of the change to the agreement, we never will.

The 2004 Bowling Green Game

The fact that Auburn did not get to play Bowling Green—a team originally on their schedule but later swiped by another program—is far more significant to Tigers history than you may realize.  And it gets even stranger than that.

Everyone remembers 2004.  Auburn went undefeated but finished third in the BCS rankings after the conference title games were played, and thus were left out of the national championship game in favor of Southern Cal and Oklahoma.  One major reason often cited for Auburn being ranked below the Sooners was Auburn’s strength of out-of-conference schedule compared with OU’s.  In particular, people point to the fact that Auburn played the “lowly” Citadel.

But why was the Citadel on Auburn’s schedule?  They were a last-minute replacement after one of Auburn’s original non-conference opponents, Bowling Green, was paid to drop Auburn and play them instead.  This was a good and relatively highly-regarded Bowling Green team—and the head coach was none other than Urban Meyer!  Thus the Falcons boosted their new opponent’s strength of schedule and hurt Auburn’s when they took the money and switched.

What team paid Bowling Green to drop Auburn and play them instead?  Why, Oklahoma, of course.

* Here’s a little bonus trivia question:  In what we consider the modern era (1981-present), Auburn has played in four Sugar Bowls: 1983, 1987, 1988, and 2004.  In those games combined, how many touchdowns has Auburn scored, and who are the players who ran or caught those touchdowns?

** The 1990 win over FSU at Jordan-Hare was the scene of an infamous “giant group hug” immediately after the game, in which both of your intrepid Wishbone columnists were caught up in a massive and emotional melee in the stands and ended up actually falling two rows down before the scrum broke apart.  This was followed by a lengthy rendition of the Seminole war chant by the Auburn student section, directed at the visiting fans as they filed out of the stadium.  Van confesses that he was shamefully joining in the arm-chopping and chanting while John was telling everyone to cut out the foolishness.

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.

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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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