A team that started the 2016 football season with a pair of disappointing losses in its first three games, this group of Auburn Tigers rebounded to win six consecutive games before injuries late in the season contributed to tough losses to rivals Georgia and Alabama.
Through it all this group kept pushing and never let the tough times get them down.
That is why on Sunday the Tigers got the news they are headed to New Orleans for a Jan. 2nd matchup vs. Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Picked to finish sixth in the SEC’s Western Division this year at the league's annual media days, this team had the talent to compete for a title, but early season struggles on offense and the late injuries derailed those plans. From Malzahn turning over the play calling duties to Rhett Lashlee to Kamryn Pettway’s breakout performance to Kevin Steele’s defense showing major improvement compared to recent seasons, Auburn has shown plenty of bright spots even with an overall 8-4 record.
Despite last season’s 6-6 regular season record the trip up 280 to Birmingham for a bowl game proved to be a pivotal moment for the Tigers because of the way the defense played in the victory over a Memphis team featuring future first round quarterback Paxton Lynch.
That is why this year's bowl game could be such a big one for the Tigers. Facing a 10-win Oklahoma team and getting a victory in that setting could propel Auburn to continued improvement in 2017.
Sugar Bowl Memories
This Sugar Bowl vs. Oklahoma will be just the second time the two teams have played, the first coming following the 1971 season in a bowl game that was also in New Orleans. At the old Tulane Stadium it was the quarterback Jack Mildren show as he ran 30 times for 149 yards and three touchdowns and also threw for another as the Sooners' wishbone attack was too much for the Tigers to overcome in a 40-22 loss. The final score was actually much closer than the game with Oklahoma leading 31-0 at the half.
Obviously the 1983 season Sugar Bowl victory over Michigan is a big one in Auburn history because it should have been for a national championship, but that's a discussion for another day. Bo Jackson's MVP performance and three field goals from Al Del Greco led the Tigers over the Wolverines in a game that probably shouldn't have been that close.
After the 1987 season the game against Syracuse in New Orleans was one I will never forget because of what became a big deal when Pat Dye elected to go for the tie and kick a field goal on fourth down from the 13-yard line with just four seconds left in the game. Had Auburn been closer I think Dye would have gone for the win, but from the 13-yard line that's a very high-risk play.
What irks me to this day is that Syracuse is the one that actually allowed it to happen in the first place. Just minutes earlier the Orangemen had a fourth down and inches at the Auburn 21-yard line and chose to kick a field goal to take a 16-13 lead. It's ridiculous to call out a team for not going for a touchdown from 13 yards out when you weren't willing to roll the dice with just inches to gain a first down.
The next year it was Florida State getting past Auburn behind Sammie Smith's big day for the Seminoles, but the end of the game is what will always haunt the Tigers because of the obvious interference on Freddy Weygand on the next to last play of the game. Reggie Slack calmly drove the Tigers down the field late in the game, including a big fourth down throw to Lawyer Tillman, to put Auburn in position for the win. On second and 10 from the 22 with less than 20 seconds left Slack rolled to his right and sent a laser towards Weygand just in front of the goal line, but Dodge hit Weygand from behind well before the ball arrived. A pass interference call would have moved the ball to the 11 and given Auburn a much better shot for a winning touchdown pass. Instead Auburn had to take a chance and Deion Sanders intercepted to end the game.
Auburn's last trip to New Orleans came in 2004 when the Tigers finished an undefeated season with a 16-13 win over Virginia Tech in a game that shouldn't have been that close. Auburn dominated the game and led 16-0 into the fourth quarter. A 10-play drive took the ball all the way to the 28 of the Hokies before Carnell Williams fumbled. Just a field goal makes it a three-score game and ends things, but Virginia Tech drove down the field for a score. Two consecutive drives of three running plays couldn't muster a first down for the Tigers and when the Hokies hit an 80-yard touchdown strike with just over two minutes left the game was in doubt. Auburn recovered an onside kick to run out the clock on the closer than needed victory.