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The Ten Greatest Auburn Teams of the Modern Era

As of this writing, thirty-one different groups of players and coaches have taken the field for a season as that year’s edition of the Auburn Tigers in what we of the Wishbone consider to be the “modern era” of Auburn football, beginning with the arrival of Patrick Fain Dye prior to the 1981 season.  Many of those teams have distinguished themselves with honors and accolades, with All-Americans and championships.  Ten have accomplished just a little bit more.

In evaluating these teams, we considered several factors, including overall performance, final record, accomplishments, fulfilled potential at season’s end relative to potential at the start, level of performance relative to the team’s era and the level of the competition, and the maddening “But for one or two stupid plays…” factor.  We have ranked them accordingly.  You may—and likely will—see at least some of this differently, and that is well and good.  That’s what the Comments section is for, and we welcome yours.

Without further ado, we therefore present our choices for the Ten Greatest Auburn teams in the Modern Era, 1981-present:

10.  1997.

Terry Bowden’s 1997 squad was the first to win a legitimate SEC Western Division title.  They lost only two games in the regular season—to Florida and Mississippi State, both in Jordan-Hare—and came up a single point short to Tennessee in Auburn’s first appearance in the SEC Championship Game.  They went on to defeat Clemson in the Peach Bowl.  Their win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl was certainly heart-stopping, but many felt the game should never have been so close, considering the Tide that year had won only four games.  They did secure impressive road wins at LSU and at Georgia, and double-threat quarterback Dameyune Craig made the team exciting, unpredictable and fun to watch every single week.

9.  2006.

While the 2006 Tigers won an impressive 11 games and lost only twice, they rank this low simply because their two losses were so unexpected, so relatively lopsided, and so devastating.  Big wins over #7 LSU and #3 Florida had them ranked in the top five in the country as late as November 11, and they were in position much of the year to have a shot at playing for the national championship.  But a shocking defeat at home at the hands of Arkansas (with an offense conducted by Gus Malzahn) and then a blowout loss to Georgia in Jordan-Hare erased any chances of a BCS berth.  The season did end on a pair of high notes, however, as Brandon Cox led the team to big wins over Alabama (in Tuscaloosa) and Nebraska (in the Cotton Bowl).

8.  1986.

Two plays.  The 1986 team came within two plays of being undefeated.  A last-second two-point conversion by Kerwin Bell, rolling his wheelchair into the end zone at Florida Field, and then a holding call on a Brent Fullwood touchdown run that would have beaten Georgia (in the infamous “Wet Dawg” game)—those two plays were all that kept the Tigers from an undefeated regular season and a Sugar Bowl berth, possibly for the national championship.  And this the very next year after Bo Jackson finished his Auburn career.

All of that aside, the 1986 squad is probably best-remembered by Auburn people for the “Reverse to Victory” against Alabama.  Auburn had lost perhaps the most heartbreaking Iron Bowl in history the year before, on Van Tiffin’s last-second field goal.  The Tigers wanted revenge, and they got it, when Lawyer Tillman took a late-fourth-quarter end-around handoff from Jeff Burger (by way of Tim Jessie) and weaved his way into the end zone for the victory.

This team also had the opportunity to play in the Orange Bowl—something Auburn has never done in the modern era.  But Pat Dye had already promised the folks of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando that the Tigers would come to their bowl instead, and he kept his word.  The Tigers proceeded to knock off USC, 16-7, in that game on January 1.

7.  1989

It’s a testament to the quality of the six teams ranked higher here that the 1989 team is only seventh on the list.  Their two losses came at Knoxville (“Blame it on the Rain,” we sang) and at Tallahassee (against one of the more powerful Florida State squads ever), both by single-digits.  Reggie Slack’s squad beat everybody else, though, including LSU, Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Above all else, though, this team will always be remembered for one of the single greatest and most important accomplishments in Auburn history: the 1989 Iron Bowl.  Undefeated, second-ranked Alabama came to Jordan-Hare (kicking and screaming) for the “First Time Ever” that year, threatening to do the absolute unthinkable: beat Auburn in our own house in their first visit. The ’89 squad had all of the Auburn Family and all of Auburn history riding on their broad shoulders, and they responded like champions.  In Auburn’s final game of the decade of the 1980s, they beat the Tide by double-digits.

Their bowl game—Auburn’s first game of the 1990s, on New Year’s Day—was almost an afterthought, and we’ve covered it in depth previously.

6.  1987

The 1987, 1988, and 1989 Auburn teams were three of the strongest, toughest, orneriest teams in Auburn football history, and among the absolute elites in all of college football those three years.  (The 1986 team wasn’t far behind them.)  They had a tough-as-nails defense consistently at or near the top of the national rankings in yardage and points allowed.  They had guys like Lawyer Tillman and Freddy Weygand and Duke Donaldson and Walter Reeves and Alexander Wright catching passes from Jeff Burger.  They had the super-reliable Win Lyle kicking field goals.

The one real weakness on those three squads was their lack of an All-SEC caliber, home-run-hitter at running back.  Brent Fullwood had moved on to the NFL after ’86, and James Bostic and Stephen Davis were still a couple of years down the road.  Stacey Danley and James Joseph carried the load admirably, but neither was quite of the caliber of a Bo Jackson or even a Rudi Johnson, able to take over a game when the going got tough.  When Emmitt Smith spurned Auburn and chose (at his momma’s urging) to stay closer to home and go to Florida, the Tigers lost the player that could have conceivably pushed them over the threshold to one, two, or even (at least in the dreams of the Wishone columnists) three national championships.  The best defense in football, that receiving corps, Reggie Slack—and Emmitt Smith?  Seriously?  They would have been up there with the toughest teams of the 1980s from any program in the country.  Even without him, they still were.

The ’87 bunch had a swagger about them.  With a defensive front consisting of Tracy Rocker, Benji Roland, and Ron Stallworth, why wouldn’t they?  They opened up against old enemy Texas in newly expanded Jordan-Hare and beat the Longhorns nearly to death, 31-3.  They gave Florida nightmares on Halloween night, 29-6.  Only a late comeback by the Vols in Knoxville (resulting in a 20-20 draw) and an inexplicable lapse against FSU (38-6) spoiled their regular season record.

Everyone remembers how that season ended.  Undefeated Syracuse in the Sugar Bowl.  Win Lyle and Dick MacPherson.  16-16.  “Tie-Dye” and “Sour Grapes.”  Not the glorious finish this team deserved, but (as Pat Dye himself put it afterward), they deserved better than to go out on a loss, and they certainly didn’t.  In retrospect, knowing the Orangemen as we’ve come to know them since, spoiling their season was not a bad way to go out at all.

5.  1993

What’s left to be said about the ’93 Undefeateds that hasn’t already been said—even by us?  Terry Bowden’s first season as head coach after Pat Dye stepped down; star players (or reliable and seasoned seniors) at all the key positions including quarterback, center, running back, wide receiver, and even kicker and punter.  In retrospect, the shock wasn’t that this squad was so good but that the previous three had been so mediocre-to-bad.

They rank fifth and not higher for two simple reasons.  One: They were never able to test their mettle in postseason play, either in Atlanta or in a bowl game of any sort, due to probation.  So we’ll never really know how they would have done in a full season.  And two: There’s a sense that much of the SEC was “down” that year. They only had to play two truly top-ranked opponents all year—Florida and Alabama.  They eked out extremely narrow wins against each, and thus deserve every accolade they’ve ever received, and more.

This is in no way meant as a negative criticism of the 1993 team and its accomplishments.  They faced every foe they were allowed to face, and they beat them all.  No one could ask for anything more.

4.  1988

It’s true that the 1993 squad never lost a game and finished the year with at least a claim to a national championship, while the 1988 team could boast neither of those things.  However, the 1988 squad had a legitimate opportunity to play for the big prize—and missed seizing that opportunity by one single play.  An “earthquake” of a play.

You know the one we’re talking about.  Tiger Stadium.  Fourth Down.  6-0 Auburn.  A last-gasp pass for a TD, and LSU wins, 7-6. Gone was the undefeated season.  Gone was the inevitable matchup with Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.  Instead they faced a motivated Florida State team that had started slow but was really coming on at the end of the year.  Even then, they fell just short at the end, and it took a no-call on a blatant pass interference against Auburn’s Freddy Weygand late to seal the deal for the Seminoles.

More than anything they did or did not accomplish, however, the 1988 team ranks this high simply because of what we might call the “eye test.”  They looked danged impressive every week, particularly on defense.  Some facts:  They gave up more than one touchdown in a game only once all year long.  The team that did that—North Carolina, oddly enough—was the only team to score more than ten points on them.  They reeled off a stretch of shutouts lasting three weeks, including a 16-0 whitewash of Florida in Gainesville, on the Gators’ homecoming.  They beat Tennessee, Miss State, and Florida by a combined score of 87-6.  They played only three away games (!) in the entire regular season, but in those games they allowed their opponents a combined total of just 17 points.

The scores would have been even more lopsided but for unforced errors by the offense.  The O-line was plagued by motion penalties all season long, meaning the offense was constantly taking two steps forward and then one step back.

The 1988 Tigers weren’t perfect.  They lost two big games to two very tough teams.  But they dominated everyone else, won the SEC for a second year in a row, and made it to the Sugar Bowl—and they looked as impressive as all get-out along the way.

3.  1983

The 1983 team rightfully deserves this spot.  If you aren’t so sure, let us make it clear:  They won the national championship.

Oh, we are well aware that Auburn doesn’t count finishing first in the New York Times poll as a “legitimate” title.  We’re not the sort of people to just randomly count every single #1 ranking, no matter how legit, as a “claimed” national title.  Can’t imagine how anyone else could, either.  But let’s be clear: At the start of the day on January 1, 1984, the experts all said one thing: If Nebraska and Texas lose, Auburn is the champion.  Guess what?  Nebraska and Texas both lost.  And yes, we still hate Miami, all these years later.

That ’83 squad had a lot going for it, but two things stand out in particular: a very strong defense, and a running game powered by Bo Jackson and Lionel James.  Add to that solid line play by future 49er Steve Wallace, steady game management by QB Randy Campbell, a D-line that included Donnie Humphrey and Doug Smith, kicking by Al Del Greco and fullbacking by Tommie Agee, and you have the makings of a champion.  A national champion.

If only the Tigers had scheduled Wake Forest or Duke for the second game of the season instead of Texas.  If only the special teams units hadn’t given the Longhorns such great field position.  If only…

Alas, Texas won that early clash and everyone remembered it for the rest of the season.  The AP voters jumped Miami from fifth to first, and left Nebraska ahead of Auburn at #2.  It’s still just as shocking today as it was on January 2, 1984.

This team deserved better.  They faced easily the toughest schedule in the nation, including out-of-conference foes Texas, Boomer Esiason’s Maryland, a good FSU squad, and the always-solid Georgia Tech and Southern Miss, in addition to Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Alabama.  They beat eighth-ranked Michigan in the Sugar Bowl, in the era when the SEC Champion went to New Orleans to play an at-large team, no matter what.

They didn’t get the #1 ranking they had earned when all was said and done, but they had served notice to the football world that Auburn was back, and here to stay.  That message, delivered with the savagery of a blue-clad defensive end driving your quarterback six inches into the lush grass of Jordan-Hare, was received loud and clear across the landscape of the SEC and beyond.

2.  2004

Perhaps the only thing worse than earning a championship and having it denied by voters is earning the right to play for a championship and having that opportunity denied by voters.

The 2004 Tigers beat everyone they faced.  There were no “if only” moments.  They didn’t give up a long kick return to Texas, or a last-second touchdown to LSU. They won those kinds of games.  All of those games.  And still.

You don’t need a history lesson here.  As Legolas said in “Fellowship,” “For me the pain is still too near.”  We all know the deal.  Jason and Ronnie and Cadillac and Carlos.  Ace and Deuce and Courtney catching the ball.  Chizik running the defense.  Gorgeous Borges turning around an offensive attack that had been anemic and downright offensive the year before and making them into a powerhouse.

And USC and Oklahoma sitting there at #1 and #2 all season long, just taunting us with the knowledge that they weren’t going to lose.  They simply were not going to get out of the way for a better team to take one of their spots.  It was awful and terrible, and of course the other truly sad thing about it is that it made the Auburn Family look at that 2004 team as somehow a team that didn’t achieve enough—that came up short somehow—that in some weird way, let us down.

That’s just not so.  They did what they had to do.  It’s not fair to them or to the Auburn spirit to remember them in any sort of negative way.  They went 13-0.  They beat the living snot out of Tennessee in Knoxville, and rang them up again in Atlanta.  They beat the Tide in T-Town.  They put together a performance for the ages against 1-loss Georgia, holding the Dawgs scoreless until the final seconds.

And yet.  And yet, we can’t help but thinking… If only.  If only Cal had held on to beat USC.  If only Oklahoma hadn’t stolen Bowling Green off our schedule before the season started, leaving Auburn to scramble to find a last-minute replacement and settling for the Citadel; perhaps that would have been enough to lift Auburn’s strength of schedule above Oklahoma’s.

If only.

Enough of that.  Hail the 2004 Auburn Tigers.  Honor them and remember them always.  For the campaign they waged that year has been topped in the modern era by only one other Tigers squad:

1.  2010

We can argue team-vs.-team, players vs. players.  We can debate if Cam Newton could have scored against the 2004 defense, or if Nick Fairley’s defense could have shut down Jason and Ronnie and Caddy.  We can study the stats and the strength-of-schedule of each team ad nauseum, and still one fact stands out that is simply incontrovertible:  The 2010 team won ‘em all—and then won the big prize.  They have a crystal football in a cabinet, while those other spectacular squads—2004 and 1993 and 1988, for all their worthiness—do not.  The 2010 players and coaches have the rings.  They have the hardware.  They went to Glendale and faced the fearsome offensive attack of Oregon and they won, and they brought the Coaches’ Trophy home aboard that big 747.

There has never been another Auburn team like them.  There’s never been a college football team quite like them.  A quarterback who was simply unstoppable for most of the year, converting third downs with ease and occasionally breaking off a Bo Jackson-style long TD run—and then cranked up his arm and lit up the scoreboard that way, too.  A supporting cast of all-timers, including:   A young running back who broke Bo’s freshman record and won MVP of the BCS Title Game; a defensive tackle who could not be blocked; a lightning-fast back who averaged around ten yards a carry; a corps of no-name receivers who got the job done every week; a senior-laden OL and a senior kicker who could always be counted on when the game was on the line; a tight end who knew how to find the end zone with the ball; a brainy linebacker who managed the defense like a coach on the field; and a complete team that demonstrated on a nearly weekly basis that no deficit was too big, no hole too deep to climb out of, no situation too intimidating and no opponent too talented.

Plenty has been said about this team.  We even wrote a book about them.  The point here, however, is to justify why they’re ranked #1.  We think the answer is simple: They closed the deal, got it done, brought home the big prize, and took us all on the greatest ride of our lives along the way.  We will leave it to others to work out elaborate simulations comparing their performance to that of the 2004 or 1983 teams.  For us, there’s no debate.  The 2010 National Champions are the greatest Auburn team in the modern era, and their glory will live forever in the hearts of the Auburn Family.

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.

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