Marshall: "What Ifs" in AU Sports History

Columnist Phillip Marshall looks at some of the biggest moments in Auburn University football, basketball and baseball history and notes how close the Tigers came to having very different outcomes in memorable games.

In college athletics at the highest level, heroes are often born and history made as by twists of fate. What if these moments in Auburn history read like this:

BIRMINGHAM, Dec. 2, 1972--Alabama's unbeaten season was saved by the bounce of the ball.

Bill Newton had already blocked one punt and David Langner had run it in for a touchdown. When Newton blocked another one in the final minutes, it seemed there might be an Instant Replay. But the ball bounced out of bounds before Langner could get to it and Alabama held on to win 16-10 and finish the regular season with an 11-0 record. Auburn will take an 8-2 record into the Gator Bowl against Colorado.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: Langner scooped up Newton's second blocked punt off the foot of Greg Gant and raced in for a touchdown to give Auburn a 17-16 victory in the most famous game in Auburn history.

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AUBURN, Sept. 18, 2004--Cornerback Corey Webster intercepted Jason Campbell's pass intended for tailback Carnell Williams, stopping a last-gasp Auburn drive, and LSU hung on for a 9-3 victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: Webster had the ball in his hands, but Williams reached in and took it away. Campbell hit Courtney Taylor for a first down on fourth-and-long and then for the winning touchdown on third-and-long. Auburn won 10-9 and was never seriously threatened again en route to the first 13-0 season in school history. Had Webster, playing on a bad leg, been a step quicker to the ball, not only would he have intercepted it, he would have probably returned it for a touchdown. Even if the rest of the season had gone exactly as it did, Auburn would not have been in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Perhaps the most memorable season in Auburn history would never have unfolded.

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BIRMINGHAM, Nov. 27, 1982--Auburn came close, but it fell short again.

Jeremiah Castille intercepted a Randy Campbell pass in the final minutes and Alabama beat Auburn 22-17, winning its 10th straight from the Tigers.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: Castille made the interception but was called for pass interference, giving Auburn a first down. Freshman Bo Jackson went over the top for the winning touchdown and Auburn broke Alabama's nine-game winning streak with a 23-22 victory. It was a sign of big things to come for the program of second-year head coach Pat Dye.

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AUBURN, December, 2003--Bobby Petrino has been named Auburn's head football coach.

Auburn president William Walker returned from his Thanksgiving vacation in Texas and announced that Tommy Tuberville would not return after a disappointing 8-5 season. Petrino, Auburn's offensive coordinator before taking over as Louisville head coach last season, was the only candidate interviewed.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: We all know this story. A clandestine trip to talk to Petrino was exposed, Tuberville kept his job and Auburn has gone 24-3 since. Tuberville has established himself as one of the nation's top coaches and is as secure as any coach in college football.

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BIRMINGHAM, Nov. 29, 1974--Quarterback Phil Gargis hit wide receiver Thomas Gossom with a 50-yard touchdown pass and Auburn went on to beat Alabama 20-17 here Saturday, claiming its second Southeastern Conference championship.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: Gossom caught the pass from Gargis and ran to the end zone, but he had been knocked a step out of bounds by Alabama cornerback Mike Washington. That made him ineligible under the rules of the day. Under today's rules, because he was forced out, he would have remained eligible, the touchdown would have counted and Auburn would have won a championship. Instead, Alabama won 17-13 to complete an unbeaten regular season when defensive end Mike DuBose cut short Auburn's last drive by swiping the ball from Gargis as Gargis tried to give it to Dan Nugent on a tight end reverse. Auburn went on to beat Texas 24-3 in the Gator Bowl and finish 9-2.

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AUBURN, Nov. 8, 2003--Jason Campbell hit Ben Obomanu with a three-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute left in the game and Auburn knocked off No. 20 Ole Miss 27-24 at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, keeping alive its longshot hopes for a West Division championship.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: Obomanu dropped the pass, then earned the respect and admiration of people far and wide by standing tall and facing reporters in the locker room after the game. It was another disappointing day in the 2003 season, but it was days like that the stoked the fire that led to greatness a season later.

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ATHENS, Ga., Nov. 12, 2005--Auburn was one step from victory, one more stride by wide receiver Devin Aromashodu. But it didn't happen.

Aromashodu caught a fourth-down pass from quarterback Brandon Cox and seemed headed for what would be the winning touchdown. Instead, as Aromashodu crossed the two-yard line, the ball was knocked out of his hands. With one foot out of bounds, he slapped the ball in the end zone, giving possession to the Bulldogs. Georgia took over at ran out the clock for a 30-28 victory.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: The ball bounded into the end zone. Aromashodu, with one foot out of bounds, swiped at the ball but missed. If he'd touched the ball, Georgia would have taken over at the 20. Courtney Taylor recovered for Auburn in the end zone. By rule, the ball was marked down where Aromashodu fumbled and John Vaughn kicked a field goal to give Auburn a 31-30 victory.

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla., May 24, 1997--Florida State reliever Randy Niles struck out sophomore Auburn catcher David Ross, blunting a Tiger rally, and the Seminoles knocked the Tigers into the losers' bracket in the NCAA East Regional baseball tournament here Saturday.

Auburn had cut a 7-1 Florida State lead to 7-5 and had two on in the bottom of the ninth. But Ross, in the lineup because of an injury to starter Casey Dunn, went down swinging.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: Florida State catcher Jeremy Salazar couldn't hold on to a two-strike foul tip. After the next pitch missed outside, Ross got a slider, up in the zone, and hit it far over the left field fence to give Auburn an 8-7 victory. The Tigers went on to win the regional and advance to the College World Series. The late Billy Hitchcock called it the most dramatic moment he could remember in Auburn athletics.

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AUBURN, Feb. 20, 1960--Jimmy Fibbe made two free throws with five seconds left to give Auburn a 61-60 lead, but Kentucky's Allen Feldhaus hit a layup as time ran out to give the Wildcats a 62-60 victory at Auburn's packed Sports Arena and the Southeastern Conference championship.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED: After Fibbe made two of the bigger free throws in Auburn history, Auburn's John Helmlinger, the team giant at 6-foot-6, came out of nowhere to block the shot. Auburn went on to win its first SEC championship.

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There are dozens of other examples of games that were lost that might have been won or that were won that might have been lost. By the time another year has passed, there'll be more.

That's life in college athletics.

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