In the regular-season finale, all Auburn needed was a win over an Alabama team with a 4-6 record to make its second straight trip to the Sugar Bowl. It didn't happen. Alabama won 17-15 at Legion Field. With fourth down on the Alabama two late in the fourth quarter, a field goal to make the score 18-17 seemed the obvious option. Instead, Auburn wishbone quarterback Randy Campbell pitched out to Brent Fullwood. He was knocked out of bounds and Alabama took over. Auburn got the ball back, but Robert McGinty missed a 42-yard field goal in the final 10 seconds and Alabama held on.
After the game, Auburn coach Pat Dye was asked why he didn't try the field goal. He responded that the Tigers would have scored a touchdown had Jackson not gone the wrong way. He was severely criticized and accused of putting the blame on a player instead of taking it on himself. Sound familiar? Auburn finished the season a disappointing 9-4, barely beating Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl.
Big things were expected again in 1985. Two weeks into the season, the Tigers were ranked No. 1 again. Then they went to Knoxville and were hammered 38-20 by Tennessee. It wasn't really that close. The Vols ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and raced to a 31-7 lead. Auburn lost the season's biggest game 14-10 to Florida at home, giving up a late touchdown. When it was time to play Alabama again, players vowed revenge. Instead, Van Tiffin kicked a 53-yard field goal on the game's final play and Alabama won 25-23. In the Cotton Bowl, Texas A&M won in a blowout and Auburn finished 8-4 and out of the polls..
Dye had gone 11-1 and won the SEC championship in 1983 with Jackson surrounded by many players recruited by Doug Barfield. By the end of 1985, fans were grumbling. They said Dye was too conservative, that he didn't know enough about offense and didn't have good enough assistant coaches. Writers and commentators, some still around today, speculated that Auburn would never get the upper hand on Alabama.
What actually was ahead was the best four-year period in Auburn history. The Tigers went 10-2, 9-1-2, 10-2 and 10-2 over the next four seasons. They won three SEC championships, two of them shared. They beat Alabama four straight times. They played in the Sugar Bowl twice.
Fast forward now to 2003. Auburn is near the end of a disappointing season. Just how disappointing depends on what happens against Georgia on Saturday and Alabama a week later. The screams of anger from fans are loud. The Tigers were ranked No. 6 in the preseason. They were picked by some to win the national championship. And now they are 6-4. This can't be a great season. It can still be a good one… or a very bad one.
The point of revisiting history is that, whatever happens the rest of this season, it doesn't mean next season will be bad. Every season is different. It doesn't take a genius to know what happened this season, Tommy Tuberville's fifth as head coach. His desire to limit change on offense by naming Hugh Nall offensive coordinator and hiring Steve Ensminger as quarterbacks coach blew up in his face. For whatever reason, it just didn't work. On top of that, the Tigers played a brutal schedule. They have losses to No. 2 Southern California and No. 3 LSU. They have a win over No. 9 Tennessee and play No. 7 Georgia on Saturday. A good team has had a tough season. Should it have been better? Absolutely. Would it have been better had Bobby Petrino not been named head coach at Louisville? I don't believe there is any doubt about it.
Tuberville did a masterful job of getting Ole Miss' program through some of the most severe sanctions in NCAA history. He took over an Auburn program short on talent and spirit and rebuilt both. He went to the SEC Championship Game his second season. And now comes perhaps the biggest crisis of his career. What will happen if Auburn loses its last two games, including falling to an Alabama team with a losing record at home? I don't know. Some things aren't as certain as they once were. Last Saturday's 24-20 loss to Ole Miss has shaken many close to the Auburn program.
It is strange that Tuberville is criticized so harshly for every game that doesn't go the right way and seems to get so little credit for the many good things have happened--on the field and off--under his watch. He has a remarkable record against teams ranked in the Top 10. His players graduate and represent their school with class and dignity. Whether some like hearing it or not, Auburn has SEC West championship trophies for each of the past three seasons. There is no SEC tiebreaker for the division championship, only to determine who goes to the championship game. By the standard of those who ridicule those championships, the 1988 team should not have claimed the SEC title. It lost to co-champion LSU.
The perception of Tuberville in some quarters would be amusing if it wasn't so sad. Those who call him arrogant, uninvolved and various other derogatory terms have no clue what the man is really like. What Tuberville is, first and foremost, is a devout Christian and family man. He is loyal to his players and to the people who work for him. They return that loyalty. Auburn players have fought on through disappointment and heartache. They won't quit, because they know their coach cares for them and they care for him. And they know he won't quit. It was about two years ago that Tuberville and I were having a conversation in his office and the subject of ethics in college athletics came up. "I'll tell you this," he said. "My sons might have to hear one day their dad got fired, but they'll never hear he got fired for cheating." That told me all I needed to know about Tommy Tuberville.
In my column last Monday, I asked if the Tigers had a specific two-point play and if it wasn't time to use it on the three-yard line against Ole Miss. They do and it was. Jason Campbell's third-down pass that was dropped by Ben Obomanu was Auburn's two-point play. Clearly, it was a good call. Obomanu was wide open.
Also, even though they looked the same, the fourth-down pass was not the same play. The sprintout action was the same, but the routes were different.
ETC: Based on the character Obomanu had displayed as an athlete and a student, something tells me he will use the disappointment of last Saturday to become stronger as a player and a person… The last time Georgia beat Auburn in Athens (1991), Pat Dye was coaching at Auburn and Ray Goff at Georgia… Word on the street is that the head coaching job at Mississippi State is LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher's for the taking if he wants it… At this point in the season, Mississippi State might be as bad an SEC team as I've seen, even worse than some of the worst Vanderbilt teams.Until next time…