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Auburn’s Ten Greatest Bowl Games

Walt McFadden returns an interception 100 yards in the 2009 Never Ending Bowl vs. Northwestern.

We continue our series examining Auburn’s greatest games of one variety or another.  Here we will look at the Tigers’ ten greatest bowl games of the “modern era,” which we define as beginning in 1981 with the arrival of Coach Pat Dye to the Plains.

As always, such a list is purely subjective and open to debate—so feel free to do so in the comments section below.  Did we rank some of them too high?  Too low?  Did we forget some entirely?  Let us know.

Here, then, is how the Wishbone columnists, Van and John, rank Auburn’s top ten greatest bowl appearances, with our comments attached.

Honorable Mentions

Arkansas, Liberty Bowl, 1984 season.

The 1984 season was a bit of a disappointment overall.  It followed the spectacular 1983 campaign that should have resulted in a national championship (we still remember that, Miami).  Hopes were high that ’84 would represent a real breakthrough for the Tigers, seeing them ascend to the top of the polls on a mostly permanent basis—and, indeed , they were ranked #1 by the AP coming into the season.  But early losses to Miami and Texas (during which Bo separated his shoulder) and later on to Florida and Alabama brought the regular season to a somewhat depressing 8-4 end.

Facing Arkansas (still of the SWC at that point) for the first time ever, in the Liberty Bowl in cold, rainy Memphis, didn’t seem terribly exciting to most of the Auburn faithful.  The Tigers pretty much shut down the Hogs’ vaunted “Flexbone” attack and prevailed, 21-15.  If nothing else, it gave the Tigers at least nine wins for a third straight season, and an early victory over a program that would soon become an annual divisional foe.

Boston College, Tangerine Bowl, 1982 season.

The battle of future Heisman Trophy winners:  Bo Jackson vs. Doug Flutie.  Auburn won.  A nice capper to the season in which Pat Dye turned Auburn’s fortunes around and made us all believe the future would be very bright.

10.  Clemson, Peach Bowl, 1997 season.

Auburn returned to the Georgia Dome just a month after having lost to Tennessee in the final seconds of their first-ever appearance in the SEC Championship Game.  Clemson had a good defense and solid special teams but not much of anything on offense.  Auburn had a nice passing attack but no running game whatsoever.  Clemson actually took the lead on a blocked Auburn punt, but the great Dameyune Craig (in his final appearance in an Auburn uniform) brought the Tigers roaring back for the 27-17 win.  Auburn finished the year with a 10-3 record, losing in the regular season only to Mississippi State and Florida.  The Tigers’ almost inexplicable domination of Clemson continued for another year.

9.  Wisconsin, Music City Bowl, 2003 season.

The 2003 season was unusual in several ways.  It began with hopes as high as they had probably ever been on the Plains.  Just as in 1984, the Tigers were coming off a big New Year’s Day bowl win from the previous season and all the signs seemed to point to even bigger things on the horizon.

We should have known, however, that the situation was not really as bright as it seemed.  Offensive guru Bobby Patrino had departed to become head coach at Louisville, and Tommy Tuberville made the mistake of handing the OC/playcalling duties over to O-line coach Hugh Nall and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger.  The offense never got on track all year long, despite having a stable of four talented running backs in Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Tre Smith, and Brandon Jacobs, along with one of the finest squadrons of wide receivers ever to take flight on the Plains—and a future NFL first-round draft pick available at quarterback in Jason Campbell.  How this group failed to produce points—even failing to score a touchdown until the third game, at Vanderbilt!—is still a mystery.

By the time the Tigers arrived in Nashville for their bowl matchup with Wisconsin, they had tumbled to 7-5, including losses to LSU and Georgia by a combined score of 57-14.  The big cheese-heads from the upper Midwest were just what the doctor ordered, and a good running attack coupled with some opportunistic plays on defense led to a 28-14 win.  Having not beaten a Big 10 foe in a bowl game since 1990 (Indiana), it was nice to beat up on one for a change.

8.  Clemson, Chik-fil-a Bowl, 2007 season.

What a strange game, both in terms of how it played out and what we all thought it meant at the time.

The 2007 season was the definition of “up and down,” with early losses to South Florida and Miss State, but wins over #3 Florida (at the Swamp) and Alabama (in Tuscaloosa).  With the end of the regular season, old OC Al Borges was out and new OC Tony Franklin was in, his fast-paced Spread attack in tow.

Surprising nearly everyone, Auburn entered their bowl game in the Georgia Dome having already installed much of Franklin’s offense—and it seemed pretty darned effective against Clemson throughout the game.  During the fourth quarter, Franklin even went so far as to steal a page from Steve Spurrier’s manual and swap his quarterbacks in and out every play; senior Brandon Cox would come in and throw short passes, and then freshman Kodi Burns would come in and run the ball.  For a while the game looked to be in hand, but some timely plays by Clemson, including a long CJ Spiller run, brought the Other Tigers back and sent the game to overtime.  Kodi’s run up the middle, spinning and breaking loose into the end zone, sent the Tigers home with the win.  The domination over Clemson continued for yet another year.

7.  Ohio State, Hall of Fame Bowl, 1989 season.

This game—the “Fame Game,” as Tiger players called it—was both Auburn’s last game of the 1980s and their first game of the 1990s, being played on January 1.  This was fitting, for it ended up being a tough, hard-fought win over a solid foe.

The Tigers appeared tight early on, and a massive hit delivered by the Buckeyes defense to Auburn running back Stacey Danley appeared to give the indication that the Tigers would struggle with this Big Ten foe.  However, the shot on Danley actually seemed to wake the Auburn team up—from that moment on, they mostly dominated, and quarterback Reggie Slack (in his final Auburn appearance) led the Tigers to a 31-14 win over John Cooper’s Ohio State.  (Interestingly, the defensive backs coach on that Buckeyes team was Ron Zook, later head coach of Florida.)

6.  Northwestern, Outback Bowl, 2009 season.

The game that would not end!

In Coach Gene Chizik’s first year in control of the Tigers program, he led a 7-5 Auburn squad to a New Year’s Day bowl (it helped that most of the SEC inexplicably finished with very similar and very mediocre conference records, so that bowl selections became as much a popularity contest as anything else).  There they faced the passing attack of Mike Kafka, who proved able to repeatedly bring the Wildcats back each time Auburn took the lead.

After Northwestern tied the game late with a touchdown and two-point conversion, Demond Washington fumbled the kickoff return and Northwestern lined up to kick the game-winning field goal.  They missed.  It was their kicker’s second miss (third if you include an earlier PAT).  Into OT we went.

After Auburn went up 38-35, Northwestern appeared to have lost the game twice but on both occasions were somehow spared.  First Kafka appeared to fumble the ball away, but replay gave it back to the Wildcats.  Then they missed a field goal but Auburn was flagged for running into the kicker.  Finally they attempted a fake field goal and were stopped just before the goal line.

This game doubtlessly instilled confidence and resilience in the players who would return for 2010: the game is never truly over until it really is over!

5.  Nebraska, Cotton Bowl, 2006 season.

Not one of the more scintillating offensive performances in football history, this one carried all the earmarks of a latter-era Tommy Tuberville contest, with the defense standing strong and  creating turnovers while the offense did just enough to eke out the win.

The 2006 Tigers came remarkably close to playing for the SEC and National Championships, rising as high as #3 in the Coaches’ Poll prior to a loss to Arkansas (with Gus Malzahn as OC).  A later loss to Georgia meant the Tigers would not be contending for anything beyond a decent bowl game—so getting to face the vaunted Cornhuskers in Dallas seemed like a decent enough way to wrap up the year.

Coach Bill Callahan was still in the midst of attempting to turn Nebraska into a pro-style passing team, and it wasn’t working out so well.  Auburn had issues on offense—an offense that in Al Borges’ third year continued to slide—and simply didn’t seem capable of putting big points on the board.  The two teams went to halftime tied at 14, but Auburn’s two scoring drives together amounted to only 23 yards.  Perhaps even more remarkably, both touchdowns were scored by fullback Carl Stewart.  The only scoring in the entire second half was a third quarter field goal by John Vaughn in his final game for Auburn.  The Tigers held on to win, 17-14.

Let’s be honest, though—just about any win over Nebraska is a good win, and it will always feel nice to be able to look back on the Tigers’ bowl records from years past and see a nice win over the Cornhuskers on there—all other circumstances aside.

4.  Penn State, Capital One Bowl, 2002 season.

Carnell “Cadillac” Williams had suffered a season-ending leg injury at Gainesville earlier in the season, and the Tigers’ offense looked to be headed south—until mighty Ronnie Brown stepped up and more than ably replaced Williams as the human dynamo in the Auburn backfield.  As it turned out, Auburn would win the Iron Bowl in a huge upset and then actually head south—to Orlando for the Capital One Bowl against Penn State.

Getting healthy in time for the bowl game after suffering a few dings against Georgia and missing the Iron Bowl, Brown put on an MVP performance as the Tigers rushed for 200 yards.  Meanwhile, the Auburn defense held vaunted Nittany Lions running back Larry Johnson to only 72 yards on twenty carries.  By winning this bowl game Auburn entered 2003 as a trendy pick to win the SEC and contend for the national title. Alas, 2003 is a whole other story…

3.  Michigan, Sugar Bowl, 1983 season.

The wait between national championships would have—should have!—only been twenty-six years, not fifty-three, but for the prejudices and preconceptions of a group of AP writers who not only failed to move the Tigers to #1 after this game, but didn’t even move them up from third to second.

Auburn entered this Sugar Bowl—its first in years—ranked third behind Nebraska and Texas.  Powered by sophomore Bo Jackson and senior Lionel James, and with super fullback Tommie Agee and efficient option quarterback Randy Campbell sharing the wishbone backfield, the Tigers had roared through what was inarguably the toughest schedule in the country, defeating Boomer Esiason’s Maryland, Florida State, undefeated Georgia, and fifth-ranked Florida, among other foes.  In fact, four of their final five opponents were ranked in the top ten, with Alabama at #19.  The only team to get the better of the Tigers in 1983 was a loaded Texas squad, who lined up to face Georgia in the Cotton Bowl earlier in the day on January 1.

For Auburn to have a chance at being voted National Champions, several rather unlikely things had to fall into place:  Georgia had to upset Texas in Dallas; Miami had to upset the “team of the century,” Nebraska, in the Orange Bowl; and Auburn had to beat a Michigan team that had vowed the Tigers would not win the game running the football on them.

As it turned out, every one of those things happened, the night culminating with Al Del Greco nailing his third consecutive kick to lift Auburn to a 9-7 win over the Wolverines.  Many Auburn fans went to bed that night believing they were unquestionably going to be ranked #1 the next day.

Of course, that didn’t happen.  In fact, they remained #3, with Nebraska falling to second and one-loss Miami, by virtue of their win over the Cornhuskers, leaping all the way from fifth to first.  No matter that Miami had lost earlier in the year to Florida—a team Auburn had beaten.  The Canes began their run of national titles and Auburn settled in for yet another round of “wait till next year.”

Certainly the low-scoring nature of the Sugar Bowl contributed to the voters’ snubbing of Auburn, despite the Tigers running for over three hundred yards against a stout Bo Schembechler defense.  While the Tigers managed only three field goals in defeating Michigan, Miami threw the ball on Nebraska.  And, as one reporter put it, for some reason, nobody remembered Miami losing to Florida but everyone remembered Auburn losing to Texas.  If Auburn had won 35-7, would the Tigers have been crowned champions?  We will never know…

2.  Virginia Tech, Sugar Bowl, 2004 season.

The next best thing to a National Championship game, the Sugar Bowl following the 2004 season pitted undefeated and third-ranked Auburn against Virginia Tech, champions of the ACC.  The Tigers were not particularly thrilled to be playing in this game—a hard thing to imagine when considering we’re talking about the Sugar Bowl.  But the Auburn players and fans all believed the Tigers should have been in Miami, in place of Oklahoma, facing USC in the Orange Bowl.  It must have been hard for the team to get up for this game, but they managed to fight and claw their way to a 16-13 victory.

This game is in some ways reminiscent of the game down below here at #1: In both cases, an undefeated season and at least the outside possibility of a national title were on the line.  In both cases, Auburn looked throughout the game to be clearly the better team.  In both instances, the Tigers made key mistakes here and there, kept their own score lower than it should have been, and allowed a formidable but lesser team to hang around and stay in the game and mount a very late comeback.  And in both games the Auburn defense played stellar—except for a lapse or two that allowed the opponent to hang around and nearly grab the victory.

Auburn actually was shutting the Hokies out as late as the start of the fourth quarter, 16-0—but the score should have been much more in Auburn’s favor.  Two late long touchdown passes by Virginia Tech’s Bryan Randall pulled the Hokies to within three points, but the Tigers held on for dear life and escaped with the win.  Once again, as in 1983, the Tigers were competing with another pair of teams in another bowl for the right to claim the national title, and they had needed to win with “style points” in order to impress the voters.  Once again, they failed to do so.  At least this time, unlike in 1983, the Tigers did move up to second, ahead of the team that lost the other game.

Jason Campbell finished his Auburn career with the MVP award, having gone 11-16 for 189 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.  Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown finished their careers with a combined 129 yards on the ground.  John Vaughn was three-for-three and provided ten of the Tigers’ points.

With USC vacating the 2004 National Title, there was some talk before the 2010 season of Auburn being retroactively awarded at least one of the championships—the Football Writers’ Association of America’s Grantland Rice Award.  Ultimately, that group decided not to do so.  Ironically, only a few months later, Auburn would be bringing home the Grantland Rice Trophy anyway:

1.  Oregon; BCS National Championship Game, 2010 season.

There’s probably little that can be said here that hasn’t already been said—and recently.  Just a couple of notes:

While the ultimate result of this game was an unquestionable win for Auburn, bringing all the hardware (BCS crystal ball, Grantland Rice, AP, etc.) home to the Plains… the fact is that this was not one of the better games Auburn played that season.  It may in fact have been Cam Newton’s worst game as a Tiger.  It is, of course, an enormous credit to Cam to point out that what may have been his worst performance was still far superior to what most other quarterbacks could have accomplished in that setting.

The Tigers inexplicably struggled on offense for much of the game.  Cam threw an interception—his first in seven games—and fumbled late in the contest, giving Oregon the chance to drive for the tying score, which they proceeded to do.  Cam and a wide-open Darvin Adams failed to hook up on a long bomb that would have been an easy touchdown in any other game of the season.  Cam’s too-short pass to an equally wide-open Eric Smith on fourth and goal resulted in a turnover on downs rather than a score.  And on and on.  Only freshman running back Mike Dyer looked like he had come to play his best game for the offense, and he delivered when the game was on the line.

The difference, of course, was the defense, and they simply must be mentioned here.  After mostly improving all season long, week to week, they absolutely dominated the Ducks in Glendale.  Nick Fairley unleashed every form of SEC mayhem imaginable upon Darron Thomas and LaMichael James and their poor, victimized offensive line.

Even so, as we watch this game over and over (and surely will continue to do so forever—Van has it on his iPhone and locked into his DVR), we can’t help but think two things, every time:  “If only we’d put together another performance like we did against Carolina in Atlanta a few weeks earlier,” and, “So what—we won anyway!  National Champs at last!!”

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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