Such was the case in 1993 when Auburn went 11-0-0 with a few close calls along the way. The Tigers were fortunate to avoid the injury bug and managed to make the necessary play needed against Vanderbilt and Florida.
The 2004 season had two close calls. One came against LSU, which basically decided the SEC West title, and the other came vs. Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to cap off a perfect 13-0 season. It's very rare any team rolls through a season without having at least one near miss. In fact, it's the "near misses" which tend to define the caliber of any championship squad.
Just a handful of plays can change the complexion of an entire season. Calvin Jackson's 96-yard interception return for a touchdown against Florida in 1993 was the key play which prevented what looked to be a potential Florida onslaught. Jason Campbell's fourth down completion to Courtney Taylor might have been the most important play of the 2004 season.
Since 1992, Auburn has been involved in 59 games determined by seven points or less. Auburn is 37-20-2 in those games, placing the Tigers second in the SEC behind Tennessee (37-20-1) in games settled by seven points or less. Vanderbilt holds the worst record in "close games," posting a 16-35-0 record since 1992.
Auburn has posted a 19-10 record under Coach Tommy Tuberville in games settled by seven points or less, which is second behind LSU's 19-8 record.
Over the past four seasons, LSU has been difficult to beat in close games, compiling a 14-4 record. Since 1992, 36 SEC teams have finished the season with at least ten victories. Those 36 teams averaged four games settled by seven points or less, which often made the difference between a good or great season. The 1994 Alabama Crimson Tide and the 2004 Tennessee Volunteers share the record for the most games determined by seven points or less. Both squads finished with a 6-1 record during their close ball games.
From 1990 through 2001, Steve Spurrier's Florida teams played the fewest number of "close" games for an SEC team, competing in only 29 in which the scoring margin was seven points or less. This was a true indicator of how well his teams were prepared and executed on game day. Vanderbilt was second with 39, but this was an indication of how often they were blown out and outmatched on game day.
During the Doug Barfield era, Auburn competed in 17 games determined by seven points or less and Pat Dye's teams competed in 49 games settled by seven points or less. From 1993 through 1998, Auburn competed in 25 games determined by seven points or less and Tuberville's Tigers have competed in 29 close ball games. What if we could change each heartbreaking loss or tie into a victory?
Instead of Barfield's 29-25-1 record, Auburn would have been 39-16-0, highlighted by a 10-1-0 campaign in 1979. The 1979 Auburn Tigers had the sixth best rushing attack in the nation, but had to outscore their opponents to manage eight victories that season. Had Barfield compiled a .709 winning percentage from 1976 through 1980, Pat Dye would not have been brought aboard in 1981.
Dye's 12-year run from 1981 through 1992 is the most successful in school history, but changing the outcome of Dye's close defeats would have made it absolutely dominating. Pat Dye was 99-39-4, but he could have been 123-19-0 with a few breaks along the way. Here is how his 12 seasons would have looked:
How about eight SEC championships and three national titles?
Pat Dye is shown at his College Football Hall of Fame ceremony last fall at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Terry Bowden would have gone from 49-20-1 to 58-12-0, which would have included back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1993 and 1994. Auburn would have been 10-2 in 1995, 11-1 in 1996 and 11-2 in 1997. The 1998 season needed a lot more assistance than changing the outcome of a few close games, finishing with a 4-7 record.
Tuberville would be 70-17 at Auburn rather than his current 60-27 mark by changing the close losses to close victories. This would have included a 11-2 record in 2000 and a 12-1 finish in 2002. The 2002 squad would have made it to the SEC title game along with the 2005 team. With a winning percentage of .804, Auburn would have the fourth highest win percentage of any BCS program in the country from 1999 through 2005.
Of course, the ball could bounce in the opposite direction. What if Auburn had lost all of its close ball games? This is what the record could have become:
Since 1992, nine SEC teams have won at least ten games, with at least five games determined by seven points or less. The close calls went their way during the ten-win season, but came back to haunt them the following year.
Those nine teams compiled a total record of 95-21 (.819), but were 56-49-0 (.533) the subsequent year. Six of the nine teams lost at least four games the following season and five actually finished with a losing record. The University of Georgia had two of the nine teams and was the only program to follow up its season with another ten-win season.
Alabama went 10-3 in 1996 with five games settled by seven points or less. It dropped to a dismal 4-7 the following year. Once again, the Crimson Tide went 10-3 in 1999 with six "close calls," followed up with a 3-8 campaign the following year.
Auburn was 10-3 in 1997 with five close ball games, finishing with a 3-8 season in 1998. The 2003 Ole Miss Rebels were 10-3 in 2003 with seven tight ball games and collapsed to 4-7 without Eli Manning in 2004. The 2004 Tennessee Volunteers were 10-3 in 2004 with a SEC record of six victories over SEC opponents by seven points or less. The following year, luck ran out and Tennessee dropped to 5-6 in 2005.
When Tuberville arrived at Auburn, he came with the moniker "River Boat Gambler" based on his coaching stint at Ole Miss. For the most part, Tuberville did not gamble based on favorable odds, but more from necessity. After all, his coaching staff had to work with depleted depth and talent and the same held true when he arrived at Auburn.
While at Ole Miss, Tuberville's teams were 9-5 in games decided by seven points or less. Of course his teams were also defeated by 14 or more points 12 times in four years.
He developed a conservative coaching style on game day because he realized it was his best chance of winning. Keep the game close until the final period, leaving yourself an opportunity to win it late. Occasionally he would sprinkle in a few fourth-down plays on offense and a few trick plays on special teams when he thought the game was slipping away early on. Over the past few years, we have seen very little of the "Riverboat Gambler" because the Tigers now have the talent and depth to compete straight up.
During his first five seasons at Auburn, the Tigers averaged five contests per season that were decided by seven points or less. Auburn was 16-9 in those games. Over the last two seasons, Auburn has averaged only two per season, with a 3-1 record in "close" ball games. Auburn has been far more polished over the past two seasons, losing only one game by 14 or more points. The Tigers had dropped 13 games by 14 or more points during Tuberville's first five seasons.
Each team creates its own breaks and preparation along with effort are often confused with luck. The 1993 Auburn Tigers were not a great team, but a squad that played great as a team. They were hungry to win and credit should be given to Bowden for making them believe they could win. The 1993 Florida game was the moment Auburn supporters believed that Auburn could defeat anyone on their schedule. The 2004 LSU game did the same for the Auburn Tigers.
There are crucial games in every season and the outcome of one or two of them can alter the outcome of the season. Last season, Auburn could not make enough plays to beat LSU and it was the difference in winning the West outright. The 2004 team had terrific senior leadership and a favorable schedule, resulting in an undefeated season. The same can be said about the 2006 squad in terms of senior leadership. The coaching staff is excited about the largest group of seniors since Tuberville arrived and they will play a major role in Auburn's critical match ups in 2006.