Auburn vs. Alabama: Tough Times at Legion Field

Our Managing Editor, at the behest of our Executive Editor, asked some of us here at Campus Pressbox to do a piece on our chosen team’s rival. Auburn has a few exciting rivalries bubbling and brewing as the 2016 season fast approaches. In the SEC West, LSU has become a very good one since the divisions were aligned in 1992. Arkansas has reared its Hawg head with Bret Bielema making noise out in Fayetteville, and this game has become a little testy at times.

Over in the SEC East, Georgia has and will always be Auburn’s biggest rival. Although, the Bulldogs have had the better of it, by far, lately, winning eight of ten in The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.

Ok, ok! You know, as well as I do, where this is going…

Auburn vs. Alabama

The game is better known as… everyone, all at once… The Iron Bowl. But I don’t prefer that designation for the greatest and grandest rivalry in college football today. It’s the Auburn-Alabama game, or the Alabama-Auburn game, depending on which side you are affiliated with. Here is my take on that subject.

Back to the business at hand. We were asked to speak to which of these games are our team’s best and worst losses in the series, which ones we would like to live, re-live, do over, or delete; and the implications any changes in the outcomes would have on the current teams or traditions.

Auburn’s Best Loss

The 1981 game would have to be my choice as the Tigers’ best loss to the Crimson Tide. Pat Dye was in his first year as Auburn’s head coach. His record was 5-5 coming into this game and a win would have put Auburn in a bowl game for the first time since 1974, when Auburn annihilated Darrel Royal’s Texas Longhorns, in the Gator Bowl, to the tune of 27-3.

To heighten the drama, Alabama head coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, stood at 314 total wins which had him tied with Amos Alonzo Stagg for the most ever in college football history. No one gave Auburn much of a chance to deny Bryant his place as the winningest coach ever. Bama was an 11.5-point favorite.

Somebody forgot to tell Auburn.

Bama scored first to take a 7-0 lead, but the Tigers knotted it on a 63-yard touchdown run by George Peoples in the second quarter.

Both teams tallied a touchdown in quarter number three and it stood 14-14 entering the final stanza. Auburn kicked a field goal to take a 17-14 lead early, and the Legion Field crowd held its collective breath as the often non-functional clock continued to tick. A shovel pass to Jesse Bendross put Bama in front 21-17 and Linnie Patrick ran for a 15-yard TD to cap the scoring and give Bryant his 315th win, by the hardest.

The mood of Auburn fans, after the game, was not dejection, at least from those whom we interacted with at that time. Optimism was palpable as Coach Dye’s team had laid the foundation for what was about to become the Golden Era of Auburn football.

The Tigers did indeed upset the Tide the following year, to end a nine game losing streak, as a young freshman named Vincent “Bo” Jackson went “over the top” late in the fourth quarter to give Auburn a 23-22 victory. Starting with that monumental win, Auburn’s record against Alabama stands at 18-16 in this classic football series.

And so, if I had to re-live a loss to our arch-rivals, it would have to be this 1981 game. I could full well live with that knowing what was in the offing. If we got a do-over on it, I would have Auburn pick off that shovel pass and run it back the other way for a touchdown, take a 10-point lead, and win by a field goal, 24-21. The Bear would not have gotten his 315th win that day, and it would have been the beginning of a three-game winning streak for Auburn.

This would not have huge implications on the current team or traditions, but it would provide an immense sense of satisfaction for Tiger players and fans, and put Auburn one game closer to tying the overall series record.

Auburn’s Worst Loss(es)

Oh me, oh my. I’d rather not go there. Sigh. Ok.

Well, I don’t know how you can separate the ’84 and ’85 games. Both were last-second, gut-wrenching losses for my Tigers.

’84: Auburn was 8-3, with their only conference loss coming to Florida. The Gators were SEC Champions on the field that year, but they were on probation. If Auburn had won the game it would play in its second consecutive Sugar Bowl. Alabama was 4-6 and about to suffer their first losing season since before Paul Bryant began coaching the Tide.

Auburn came out flat that day for some odd reason. It scored first, but Alabama, the designated home team at “neutral” Legion Field, rallied and led 17-7 as the fourth quarter began to wind down. Then the Tigers’ Brent Fullwood streaked for a 60-yard TD and the two-point conversion was successful, 17-15. Later in the quarter, on fourth down, Auburn found itself at the Alabama one-yard line. I jumped up and began screaming at the TV, “Kick the field goal. Kick the damn field goal. Let’s get outta here.” Dye opted to go for it and Fullwood was stuffed for a three-yard loss when Bo Jackson thought he was going to get the ball, went the wrong way, and did not block for his teammate.

Auburn did have an opportunity to kick a last second field goal which missed badly. Game over. Nightmare.

’85: Nightmare Deux, in spite of Bo Jackson making a final, emphatic case for the Heisman Trophy. He put forth a brilliantly gallant effort, and he was playing with two broken ribs. The game went back and forth like a heavyweight prize fight. Auburn went up 23-22 very late in the game. The prospects of a win looked quite promising, especially when Alabama found itself at its own 12 yard-line with 37 seconds remaining and no timeouts on the board. A couple of plays later Mike Shula got off a pass to Greg Richardson coming across the middle, and he managed to somehow get out-of-bounds with six seconds left on the clock.

Van Tiffin then nailed a 52-yard field goal and that was that. 25-23, Alabama.

Alrighty then! That was a nice exercise in masochism.

Let’s go right to the do-overs. In ’85, either Richardson does not get out-of-bounds or Tiffin misses the field goal, and Auburn wins, 23-22, for the second time in four years. Back to ’84, Auburn kicks the 18-yard chip shot and wins, 18-17. The Tigers now, with my ’81, ’84, and ’85 do-overs, win nine-in-a-row. This trumps what would now be an eight-game winning streak for Alabama, ’73- ’80, in the series. Auburn goes 18-8 over these next 26 games, through 2006, and Nick Saban is not hired in 2007 as he wants no part of the turmoil in Tuscaloosa.

The implications? Auburn continues as the dominant team in the state, Alabama doesn’t win four more Natties, and all is well on the Plains.

Revisionist history. Pretty sweet, right?

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Auburn: Corso and Clemson

On College College GameDay, September 7, 1996, Lee Corso picked Fresno State to beat Auburn in an upset at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Anyone remember the final score on that one? Let me jog your memory. The Auburn Tigers defeated the Fresno State Bulldogs by a score of 62-0. There were signs at dining establishments around the Loveliest Village chiding Corso for his blunderous pick and rightly so.

Things have changed since that day, at least they have for me. I hope they have for the rest of the Auburn Family. Move on. I now find Corso to be a lovable figure. He brings some great humor to his job with his antics and, at times, some pretty good insight on the game of college football. He has become somewhat of a grandfatherly figure in his role.

In short, I like him.

I actually began to truly warm up to “Coach” back in 1995 when GameDay came to Auburn for the Iron Bowl. Our family went by the tent where their crew was stationed, it’s nothing like it is today, and we had a chance to shake Corso’s hand. He could not have been more gracious. He was very friendly and complimentary of Auburn. He mentioned how great the atmosphere was, as good as he’d ever seen. Hey, it’s the Iron Bowl. There is no atmosphere that beats that.

A few minutes after we left the GameDay tent we ran into Craig James on Donahue St. near the stadium. He also complimented Auburn on the atmosphere.

But back to Coach Corso. Last week he was a guest on a radio sports show in Mobile and he had high praise for Auburn and Gus Malzahn.

I tend to agree with Lee on most points but Gus is on the hot seat. I do agree with him in that he shouldn’t be. I think Gus is still learning to be a head coach and that he will learn from his mistakes of the past two years, well, since November of 2014. He had no control over the quarterback woes in 2015. He has taken a much more hands on approach in spring practice and with the offense. He has been seen personally coaching up JUCO quarterback transfer John Franklin III.

I love the fact that Gus is getting back in a more involved manner and, hopefully, that will pay great dividends.

Corso also makes a good point on being in the same state with Saban. Too many teams in the SEC, including Auburn, are measuring their success against Alabama and that is not a good thing. Look at Les Miles and LSU as a prime example. Don’t worry about Alabama. Sure, they are in the same division but you’ve just got to be the best you can be. The best LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss (two in a row versus Saban, by the way), Miss State, Arkansas or Auburn.

Corso thinks Auburn could make a lot of noise this year. They very well could. Auburn has been known to come off a bad year with a special season. The best examples of that would be the 2003-2004 and 2012-2013 seasons.

The 2003 team was thought of, by many, as a national championship contender with Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, Jason Campbell and company. They promptly lost their first two games to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech and for all practical purposes, it was over. They finished 8-5 with a Music City Bowl win over Wisconsin.

The 2004 team with, essentially thew same cast of characters, went 13-0 and should have played Southern Cal for it all. The AP and Coaches Poll geniuses, of course, put Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game and they were drubbed. The 2004 unit is ,arguably, the best team in Auburn football history.

The 2012 aggregation was one of the worst in Auburn football history. They went 0-8 in the SEC, last in the West, en- route to a 3-9 season. Sheer and utter misery. Coach Gene Chizik was fired just two seasons removed from the BCS National Title.

Then the 2013 (12-2) squad came along, under new head coach and former offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, and came within thirteen seconds of winning it all. One of the greatest turn-arounds in college football history.

That could happen in 2016 but it is highly unlikely. Living in the SEC West is murderous, suicidal, brutal, or excruciating. Pick a word or come up with one yourself. It ain’t no place for sissies (drawing on my inner Coach Pat Dye).

Me? I’m taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude. I know by the time the 2016 campaign gets here I’ll be buzzing like a bee. It’s tough to contain oneself now. But I am definitely working on curbing my enthusiasm ($1 to Larry David).

The opening game with Clemson, pre-season number one?, was mentioned by Corso. You can look at that game a couple of ways. You can take the attitude of, “Hey, it’s a non-conference game and, whatever the outcome, if we play well then that’s a good start. Or you can say, “Beat Clemson and take a quantum leap in the eyes of the committee, pollsters, and the college football world in general.” If you know me, you know which course I’m plotting. 😉

But you know the good thing about all of this? We are talking college football! That is a good thing. The sun is shining. It feels like spring. And, yes, we are talking college football.

Bring it on!

Snakebit: Remembering Kenny Stabler

It was Thanksgiving weekend of 1965. I was sitting low in the north end zone of Legion Field in Birmingham. The University of Alabama was drilling my beloved Auburn Tigers to the tune of 30-3.

The rout was getting on into the 4th quarter when Bear Bryant decided to pull starting quarterback, Steve Sloan, and allow his backup to play.

Sloan’s understudy was a skinny kid from LA (Lower Alabama). His name was Kenny Stabler, but his nickname was Snake.

Kenneth Michael Stabler was born on Christmas day, 1945, in Foley, AL. During his three years as QB at Foley High, he led his teams to a 29-1 record.

We are familiar with Snake’s formidable football skills, but he was a great all around athlete. He averaged 29 points a game in basketball and was an excellent southpaw pitcher in baseball, receiving offers from the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees.

Stabler, of course, signed a football scholarship to play for legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. He did not play on the varsity his initial year on the Capstone, 1964, as freshmen were not eligible to play at that time.

In 1965 he played sparingly, completing 3 passes in 11 attempts, with 1 Touchdown and no interceptions.

Snake became the starting signal caller for the Crimson Tide in 1966 and held that position for the next two seasons.

Alabama went 11-0, behind Stabler, in his first season as the number one QB. The 1966 season, despite it’s unblemished record and number three ranking, remains, in some ways, a painful one for Bama fans as they finished behind Notre Dame and Michigan State in the AP and UPI polls. The Irish and Spartans played to a 10-10 tie on November 19th.

The poll results, during those years, were issued immediately after the regular season. This worked to Alabama’s favor after the 1964 season when they went 10-0 but lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl. They dominated Nebraska, 34-7, in the Sugar Bowl, following the ’66 campaign, which solidified their place atop the college football world in the minds of many. But it was not to be.

December 2, 1972 is a day that will live in the minds the Auburn faithful as one of, if not THE MOST, important wins in Tiger football history. That game has come to be known, simply, as “Punt Bama Punt.”

I don’t have to refresh anyone’s mind on what happened that day in Iron Bowl history.

December 2, 1967 belongs at the opposite end of the spectrum for those who proudly wear the burnt orange and navy blue. This game is now referred to as the “Run in the Mud” by crimson and white faithful.

I spent the bulk of the evening of December 1, 1967 at my brother Jerry’s in-law’s house in Canton Bend, AL, which is about five miles from where I grew up in Camden, which is the county seat of Wilcox County.

My brother was married to Nellie Autrey, and Nellie was one of my closest friends, at that time.

Nellie and I were listening to WLS “Music” Radio that night from the kitchen of the Autrey’s home. The only song I distinctly remember, that came emanating from the AM airwaves, was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”. GREAT SONG!!!

I like this incarnation of Rogers more than his later solo work, but that is another story for another time.

The next morning my father and I climbed into our Dodge Cornet and headed for Birmingham and storied Legion Field. My record at the hallowed venue was a dismal 1-3 at this juncture of my life. The win was over Georgia Tech in 1962 and the losses were consecutive year defeats to Bama, 1964-66.

But I was feeling pretty good about Auburn’s chances on that rainy, blustery morning of December 2. The Tigers were having a very good season, at 6-2, before being beaten by the Georgia Bulldogs, 17-0, in their previous game.

Alabama came into the contest standing at 6-2-1. So, the records were strikingly similar and the stage was set for a classic Iron Bowl. It did not disappoint.

When daddy and I arrived at the “Old Grey Lady on Graymont”, the winds had picked up considerably as had the rain. We parked behind a Gulf Station and began our trek to Legion Field. Our umbrella, that we shared, was turned inside/out by the nasty elements. Tornado warnings had been issued. That did not deter us or tens of thousands of other football fanatics from witnessing this regular season finale.

This was, and remains, THE game of each and every season in the great state of Alabama.

We made or way to the west stands, where our seats were located, to a row which was not far from the top of our section. Our direct line of vision was somewhere around the goal line. Auburn was clad in blue jerseys and white pants with white helmets. Alabama wore all white with crimson helmets.

By game time the rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was whipping furiously.

Auburn took the opening kickoff. Freddie Hyatt burst through the first line of defense and was within a hair of taking it all the way before he was stopped. Auburn drove deep into Alabama territory and tuned the ball over on downs inside the ten yard line. The Tigers lived in the Tide’s red zone those first two quarters but they came away with no points. They had disdained field goals for an opportunity to go up by, at least, seven points. It was not to be.

Auburn 0, Alabama 0, at the half.

The concourses at Legion Field were packed during halftime. It was no small wonder as the weather was utterly miserable. Daddy and I ran into Mr. Nettles Ivey and, my dear friend, Tommy Ratcliffe at the break. Their seats, with Mr. Ivey’s father, were on the fifty yard-line. They invited us to sit with them. The stands were not full as a great number of people decided, probably wisely, to remain in the shelter of the stands. There was plenty of room.

But the view, here, was terrible. We could barely see as our seats, behind the Auburn sideline, were now on a very low row.

Auburn mounted a 60 yard drive, to the Alabama 21, in the third quarter. Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan” finally opted for a field goal. Somehow John “Rat” Riley connected on the 38-yard attempt. The driving rain, coupled with the players cleats grinding up the turf, had made conditions almost unplayable.

The bulk of the field was not unlike a pig pen. The game was now being played entirely in the mud.

Auburn took their tenuous, 3-0, lead into the fourth quarter. The outlook was promising. How on earth could anyone score again in this slop? My hopes of witnessing, in-person, Auburn defeat Alabama, were rising by the minute.

As the game moved deep into the final stanza, the Tigers set up to punt near the fifty yard-line. The snap was fumbled and the Crimson Tide recovered at their own 48. They lost a yard on first down.

Quarterback Kenny Stabler took the second down snap and broke toward right end. It appeared to be an option. He kept the ball and neared the corner. The crowd rose to its feet. I could not see. What was going on?

Then there came a thunderous burst from the opposite “visitors” stands. That roar became deafening as the stomping in their upper deck, helped to create a deafening roar. I jumped up and down in a futile attempt to see what was taking place. I looked up at my father and queried, “What happened, daddy? What happened?” “He scored,” was the reply.

My heart sank to my toes. I was numb. The “Snake” had slithered to a 53-yard touchdown and, shortly, this play would be entered into football folklore as one of the most dramatic plays in Iron Bowl history.

As most people know by now, Kenneth Michael Stabler departed this world on July 8.

“Snake”, along with a legion of others, this Auburn fan salutes you. May you rest in peace.