Alabama, 9-2, under fourth-year coach Ray Perkins, had an up and down season and was a slight favorite over the Tigers. The Crimson Tide had big wins early in the year over Ohio State, Notre Dame and Tennessee and had climbed as high as No. 2 in the polls before getting pounded by Penn State, the eventual national champions, 23-3, as well as suffering a 14-10 loss to SEC Champion LSU.
Both the Tigers and the Tide had tremendous athletes on both sides of the ball, which became evident on the first play from scrimmage as Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett nailed Auburn's Brent Fullwood for a loss. Bennett, who went on to a long and successful pro career, was known then and is still known best by Alabama fans for his crushing hit on Notre Dame quarterback Steve Buerlein that year.
With the running of Fullwood, a first-team All-American, and a short passing attack by AU quarterback Jeff Burger, the Tigers marched down the field and had a chance to get the first points on the board. However, on a third and 14 Burger made an errant throw intended for his favorite target, Lawyer Tillman, which was picked by safety Steve Wilson.
Alabama immediately went to work with its showcase back, Bobby Humphrey, who ran wild on the Tigers in the first half. Humphrey carried 48 yards up the gut to the Auburn 32-yard line and a couple of plays later ran from the 29 to the Tigers' four-yard line on a toss. On third and goal from the two, quarterback Mike Shula found tight end Angelo Stafford for a two-yard score to give his team a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
Humphrey had 78 of Alabama's 82 yards on the drive, but not to be outdone, it was Fullwood's turn to even up the score. With great blocks by fullback Tommie Agee and All-American left tackle Stacy Searels, Fullwood took a toss 31 yards to move into Alabama territory. On the first play of the second quarter, the Tigers went back to the toss to Fullwood. Tight end Walter Reeves sealed the cutback lane with a block on Bennett and Fullwood turned it up field for a 17-yard touchdown. Chris Knapp tied the score at 7-7.
Later in the second quarter Auburn had a chance to take the lead after a defensive stop and a solid punt return by Trey Gainous. With the I-formation toss play being the bread and butter of the Auburn offense with Reeves setting the edge and Agee lead blocking, the reverse to receiver Scott Bolton was open for 21 yards to get drive going. Fullback Vincent Harris carried to the Tide 11-yard line and a play later Fullwood broke a pair of tackles and found the end zone. However, a hold negated the play and Knapp concluded the drive with a missed 29-yard field goal.
The Tide came back and continued to pound it on the ground with Humphrey. A delayed handoff to the sophomore tailback picked up big yardage and moved the ball to the Auburn 24. Alabama took a 14-7 lead a few plays later when Shula found Humphrey alone in the flats for a seven-yard score. On the Crimson Tide's next drive, Shula went for the end zone just before halftime to try for a 21-7 lead and all of the momentum. However, Auburn cornerback Kevin Porter picked off Shula in the end zone and Alabama took a 14-7 lead into the locker room.
Led by Tracy Rocker, Aundray Bruce, Benji Roland, Ron Stallworth and Kurt Crain, the Auburn defense under first-year coordinator Wayne Hall had allowed just 98 yards rushing per contest. However, Humphrey already had five carries of 20-plus yards and totaled 176 on just 16 carries in the first 30 minutes. With the offense missing on a pair of opportunities inside the Alabama 20, the defense had to rise to the occasion in the second half if the Tigers were to avoid a third-consecutive Iron Bowl loss.
The Tiger D did just that, but the offense kept putting the defense in a bind to start the third quarter. After a defensive stop, Burger threw his second pick of the game, this one to Alabama defensive back Freddie Robinson. The Auburn D held its ground, but the offense once again turned the ball over. Fullwood fumbled and Alabama recovered at Tigers' 17-yard line. Stallworth, Crain and Nate Hill forced a three-and-out, but Tiffin connected on a 29-yarder to give Alabama a 17-7 lead.
With the Auburn offense still struggling to get much going, the Crimson Tide had the ball again inside Auburn territory up 17-7 late in the third quarter. A touchdown could have put the game out of reach, but the Tigers forced another Chris Mohr punt.
Fullwood follows Stacy Searels around left end. The senior tailback averaged 8.33 yards per carry and totaled 1,391 yards in 1986.
Auburn started its next series at its own 21-yard line and got 19 yards on a run by Tim Jessie. On a third and long Burger dropped back and threw a screen to Jessie, who lost his footing, but Alabama was called for a personal foul by Wayne Davis for spearing. That gave the Tigers new hope and Burger made the best of it, finding Tillman on an out and Reeves down the middle to move inside the Alabama 20. However, the Legion Field clock had hit double zeros on the third quarter and the Tigers had just 15 minutes to rally from a 17-7 deficit.
The Auburn offense was run by committee in 1986 with Dye, Larry Blakeney and first-year coach Pat Sullivan calling the plays. Desperately needing a score, they went with Fullwood on the toss to start the fourth quarter. From the Alabama 17-yard line, the senior tailback slipped a tackle from Kermit Kendrick, sprinted down the sideline and outraced a pair of Tide defenders to the corner of the end zone.
Alabama's lead was cut to 17-14, but the Crimson Tide was out to shut the door on the Tigers. It quickly moved the ball inside Auburn territory and Gene Jelks, who was later involved in an NCAA investigation against the Alabama program, raced for the Auburn end zone. Former walk-on cornerback Chip Powell ran Jelks down inside the five-yard line and he was also blocked in the back by receiver Greg Richardson while making a potential game-saving tackle. Similar to Auburn's misfortune in the first-half, Van Tiffin missed a 39-yard field goal attempt and the Crimson Tide came away without points.
Needing a field goal to tie and a touchdown to take the lead, Auburn drove back down the field on the legs of Fullwood, who injured a knee when he was horse-collared by Davis. However, similar to the interception in the first quarter, Burger was pressured and threw one up for grabs near the Alabama goal line. Kendrick came down with pick midway through the fourth. However, the Auburn defense, which held Humphrey to just 29 yards rushing in the second half, gave the offense another opportunity with 4:54 remaining.
Against an Alabama defense with players like Bennett, Davis, Kendrick, Derrick Thomas and Kurt Jarvis, the Tigers had 67 yards between them and the end zone for a victory in the Iron Bowl. Just like the previous four years at the Old Gray Lady, this one was going to be a heart-stopper. On third and five from their own 38, a gimp Fullwood carried a draw play for the necessary five yards to move the chains. The Tigers moved to midfield and Burger was stuffed on a third-down bootleg to bring up fourth and two with 2:18 remaining.
Auburn took a time out then Alabama took one of its own. It was do or die. Burger dropped back and found Gainous on a drag route in the left flats. The senior receiver, who stole 24 bases for the AU baseball team in 1987, made a sliding catch in coverage to keep Auburn's hopes alive. Fullwood took the next play 20 yards and Agee then gashed the Tide front for 11 more. The Tigers were just 10 yards away from pay dirt with 1:28 to play.
Harris carried up the gut to the eight on first down. Bolton, who had successfully run the reverse earlier in the game, was supposed to be in the game on second down. With time ticking away, the Tigers raced up to the line. Tillman, who wasn't supposed to be in the game, was signaling for a timeout. Nobody noticed. Burger tossed right to Jessie, who handed off to Tillman. The 6-4 receiver ran around left end, cut inside a Tide defender and fell into the end zone for the touchdown. Knapp put the Tigers up by four with 32 seconds to play.
Humphrey returned the kickoff to the AU 30 and Arthur Johnson and Powell broke up a pair of Shula passes. The Tide gave one final heave-ho, which Powell knocked down to the artificial turf of Legion Field.
Auburn 21, Alabama 17.
The week before the 1986 Iron Bowl, Perkins proclaimed that the game would never be played in Auburn. By 1989, Dye had moved Auburn's home games to where they belonged, and on Nov. 19, 2005, the field of Jordan-Hare Stadium was dedicated as Pat Dye Field.
Prior to the Iron Bowl, Dye accepted a bid to the Citrus Bowl to play a Rodney Peete-led USC. The Orange Bowl also called to extend and invitation to the Tigers, but Dye kept his word to the Citrus Bowl. Auburn beat the Trojans 16-7 and finished the season ranked 6th in the AP Poll.