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The Top Ten Auburn Games Played in Jordan-Hare, 1981-2000, Part 1

"Many young Auburn fans today have no real understanding of how intense this rivalry became during the 1980s."

This week The Wishbone continues its lists of “greatests ever,” this time looking at the best games (“best” for a variety of reasons) Auburn has played in the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. [Here’s the Top Ten NOT played in Jordan-Hare.]

As usual with us, we draw the cutoff date at 1981, which we consider to be the beginning of the “modern era” of Auburn football—the first season led by Coach Pat Dye.

And as usual, we welcome suggestions of games we’ve overlooked and arguments about the ones we’ve included.  A slight effort has been made to rank them in order of importance, but such measurements are extremely subjective: surely everyone who reads this will prefer a different order to the list.

For obvious reasons, we have broken what turned out to be a pretty massive undertaking into four parts.  The installment covers numbers 6-10 of the greatest home games from 1981-2000; next week’s will cover numbers 1-5 from that period.  Two subsequent columns will cover the ten greatest home games from 2001-2010.

So, without further ado:

The Top Ten Auburn Home Games, 1981-2000, Part 1

Honorable mentions:

1983 Florida State, 1988 Tennessee (38-6!), 1990 Tennessee (a tie, but Stan White stepped up), 1995 Alabama, 2000 LSU (a nice win over Nick Saban), 2000 Georgia (29-26 in OT).

10.  Texas, 1987 season.

Other games—perhaps any of the Honorable Mentions above—could fill this spot as easily as the 1987 Texas game. After all, nothing much was on the line here; no conference titles, no championships, and heck—it wasn’t even a bowl game.  It was in fact the opening game of the year.  That being said, this game did mean a lot to Auburn players and fans alike.  Texas had ruined Auburn’s shot at the national championship in 1983, dealing the Tigers their only loss of the season. A year later, in Austin, the Longhorns had won again and dislocated Bo Jackson’s shoulder in the process.  Payback was more than due, and the ’87 Tigers delivered it by the truckload, crushing Texas 31-3 to start off a memorable season.

The Longhorns, who had dismissed Fred Akers as coach following the previous season and replaced him with David McWilliams, appeared to expect that Auburn would run the ball every play.  To the contrary, Auburn had every intention of throwing the ball, and the passing game (which had been in use since the beginning of the previous season) clicked on all cylinders.  Senior Jeff Burger connected with a powerful squadron of receivers that included Freddy Weygand, Lawyer Tillman, Alexander Wright, and Duke Donaldson, among others.  For the defense, in his first game as a Tiger, Greg Staples at safety made an eye-popping interception when he crashed into a Texas receiver in midair and literally tore the ball away, and Kurt Crain at linebacker helped stuff the Texas run game and at one point even hugged the referee.

No, this wasn’t an earth-shatteringly consequential game in the big picture, but it was a big, emotionally satisfying win over the Texas Longhorns, after two very damaging losses to them.  And that’s plenty.

9.  Florida, 1989 season.

The Auburn-Florida series in the 1980s generally gave us great defensive performances by both teams, and the ’89 edition was no different.  Twelfth-ranked Auburn’s spirits were high coming into this game, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of Jordan-Hare Stadium, and even featured a reenactment at halftime of Auburn’s touchdown pass scored during the very first game against Florida in the stadium.  The #19 Gators, on the other hand, were in turmoil.  Defensive Coordinator Gary Darnell had taken over as head coach of Florida five games into the season, amid suggestions of NCAA violations by Coach Galen Hall. Things quickly went south for the Gators, who would finish the season 7-5 after starting out 6-1.

Even so, the Gators—led by running back Emmitt Smith—gave Auburn a hard-nosed game that came down to the final play.  Florida’s lone score came after Auburn fumbled deep in their own territory; otherwise, the Gators were unable to move the ball.  Neither were the Tigers, however; they had mustered only a field goal before their final drive of the game.

With time running out, Reggie Slack put together a scoring drive that culminated with a rollout pass to Shane Wasden falling down in the end zone.  Jim Fyffe summed it up in his inimitable style: “I have seen the impossible happen!”  Auburn held on to win, 10-7.

Emmitt Smith turned pro after this season and thus finished his college career 0-3 against Auburn—a school he had very nearly chosen over Florida as a high schooler.

Here’s video of Smith after the ’89 game, regretting his decision.

After the game, Darnell engaged in a shouting match with numerous fans in the Auburn student section on his way out of the stadium, and a number of Auburn students were actually restrained (by plastic wrist-ties) and detained by AU police (including one of Van’s roommates!).  Darnell would not return at the helm in Gainesville in 1990; instead, the Gators brought in a former Duke coach you may have heard of: Steve Spurrier.

8.  Florida, 1983 season.

This game was a huge win for Auburn in Pat Dye’s best season as Tigers coach.  The ’83 Gators were a strong unit—ranked fifth in the country—and were in fact the only team to defeat the Miami Hurricanes that year.  Lots of future NFL players dotted the lineups of both squads.  It was an epic clash in a season of epic clashes for then-#4 Auburn.

The Tigers got off to a big start following a 55-yard touchdown run by Bo Jackson and then a short Randy Campbell scoring run.  Florida hung in there when QB Wayne Peace connected with Ricky Nattiel for a touchdown.  The Tigers tried to pull away again by way of a 17-yard Lionel “Little Train” James score.  But the Gators weren’t done.  They marched down to the Auburn goal line in the third quarter and threatened to punch it in—only for RB Neal Anderson to fumble the ball out the back of the end zone.  Auburn took over on the twenty and on the very next play, in quintessential Bo Jackson style, the Great One rumbled eighty yards for a touchdown.  (He would end the day having amassed nearly two hundred yards rushing.)

Florida managed two scores of their own in the fourth quarter and even recovered an onsides kick, but it wasn’t enough—the Tigers held on for the huge 28-21 win and remained on track for the SEC title and a shot at the national championship.  And of course any win over Florida is a big win—which brings us to:

7.  Florida, 1987 season.

Auburn fans were beyond hungry for a victory over Florida in 1987, having lost three straight to the Gators following the ’83 win.  The 1984 game had been a 24-3 embarrassment, with Bo Jackson returning to the lineup after missing six games with a separated shoulder, only to play somewhat tentatively.  The game the following year was a hard-fought affair—a “Game of Steel,” as the Birmingham News called it—that nevertheless went Florida’s way.  The 1986 game in Gainesville was hardest of all to swallow; Auburn had the win in their pockets only to lose at the last moment when limping quarterback Kerwin Bell somehow hobbled across the goal line to score a two-point conversion and steal the 18-17 win.  It hadn’t helped that Florida had pulled to within 17-10 earlier in the game due to a long field goal by Robert McGinty—a former Auburn kicker Pat Dye had essentially shoved out the door after he missed a potential game-winner against Alabama in 1984.  Thus in 1987 Tigers fans were desperate to beat Florida, and beat them soundly.

At the beginning of the national telecast of the 1987 game, the CBS announcer summed up the zeitgeist perfectly:  “It’s the irresistible force—Florida’s Emmitt Smith—against the immovable object—Auburn’s Aundray Bruce.”  Now, looking back, we know that the actual “immovable object” of that defense was probably Tracy Rocker, not Bruce.  But Bruce had recently put together one of the most remarkable individual performances in some time against Georgia Tech in Atlanta so he’s who the media and fans were focusing on at the time.

The game was played on Halloween night and T-shirts beforehand proclaimed a “Nightmare at Jordan-Hare.” Indeed, the tenth-ranked Gators were spooked from the first moment, with every phase of the game coming together for sixth-ranked Auburn.  The Gators were held to only six points and Emmitt Smith was mostly held in check, failing to reach a hundred total rushing yards.  Auburn, meanwhile, scored 29 points and cruised to victory in what was one of the most satisfying wins against a big rival in Auburn history.

6.  Florida State, 1990 season.

This game brought the Auburn-Florida State series to a close; the teams have not faced one another since.  It’s been so long, many young Auburn fans have no real understanding of how intense this rivalry became during the 1980s.  Both programs were on the rise under iconic head coaches (Pat Dye/Bobby Bowden). Both had developed stout defenses to go along with exciting offenses.  (It was as if, one day in the middle of 1986, Florida State came around to the idea of playing defense at the exact same moment that Auburn came around to the idea of passing the football.)

This game was the rubber match of what had turned out to be a seven-game series.  Auburn had won in exciting shootouts in 1983, 1984, and 1985, while FSU struck back with a blowout win in Jordan-Hare in 1987 (the very week after the above Florida game!) and a controversial Sugar Bowl win at the end of the 1988 season (featuring a no-call on a Deion Sanders [CORRECTION: Dedrick Dodge] pass interference of Freddy Weygand as Auburn was driving for what would have been the winning score).  The Seminoles brought the series level in 1989 by holding on in the face of a furious Auburn comeback to win in Tallahassee.  So 1990 would decide the series winner and would also provide the Tigers a chance to break the three-game losing streak.  Auburn fans were ravenous for victory over the Seminoles and this would be the last chance to get it.

Auburn’s defense ultimately would make the difference.  They shut out FSU in the second half, and two of their plays in particular stand out from this game—along with one interesting coaching decision by Pat Dye.

First came the “fumblerooksi.”  A staple of the Bowden playbook in those days, FSU would save this (now-banned) trick play for critical situations.  Unfortunately for the Seminoles, AU’s defensive line had been well-versed in how to spot it.  When the FSU center placed the ball on the ground to start the play, a Tiger lineman immediately leapt upon it.  Boom: “fumblerooski” becomes “fumble.”

With Florida State ahead very late, 17-14, an Auburn drive stalled out and Pat Dye called for a field goal. This brought back memories of the Sugar Bowl tie with Syracuse after the 1987 season, as well as the tie with Tennessee earlier in the season.  This time, however, Dye was proven right in his decision.  Auburn leveled the game at 17-17 with very little time remaining, but FSU would have one more chance to score.  Quickly the Seminoles drove into Auburn territory, and things appeared bleak.

Then Auburn’s defense stepped up, getting a huge sack on the Seminole QB after pursuing him across what seemed like half the length of the field.  The play lost what must have been twenty yards at the very least, taking the Seminoles out of field goal range.

Getting the ball back, Auburn moved into field goal range themselves and, as time expired, Jim Von Wyl nailed the kick that gave the Tigers an absolutely shocking and improbable 20-17 victory.

As Tigers fans celebrated in the stadium after the win, many of them spontaneously broke out into the Seminole tomahawk chop and war chant—directed at the visitors’ section of the stands.  The FSU crowd, perhaps not as well-versed at that time as most SEC fan bases on the maxim, “When you lose on the road, get out of the stadium immediately,” simply stood there, agape, watching.  They couldn’t quite seem to believe what had happened, or that they were getting their annoying gesture chopped back at them.  Ahh, sweet victory.

The seven-game FSU series belonged to Auburn, 4-3.

This concludes numbers 6-10 of The Top Ten Auburn Games Played at Home, 1981-2000.  In our next installment, we will examine the other half of the list, including the #1 overall greatest game ever played in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

As always, we welcome your comments, corrections, and insights.

Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Related: The Top Ten Games NOT Played in Jordan-Hare, Auburn’s Ten Greatest Bowl Games, The Ten Best Auburn Games That Never Happened

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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