AUBURN, Ala. — There seems to be a consensus among Auburn fans throughout history that being the underdog is a good thing.
How did it start? Through coach speak and results on the field.
“Historically, Auburn has struck best from the underdog role,” said former Auburn athletics director David Housel, now the go-to source for Auburn history. “Coach (Shug) Jordan was a master of the us-against-the-world mentality.”
During those 25 years of the Jordan era, one can pinpoint eight seasons in which the Tigers defied outside expectations — for better or worse.
Ever since the Jordan era, Auburn fans seemingly have been trained to believe life as an underdog is when the Tigers are at their best. When high expectations are the norm, the Tigers are more likely to falter.
Is it true? A search through Auburn football history has shows 17 such instances since the Jordan era, which started in 1957.
“Some say it is in our DNA that we don’t do well when picked high, and have our best years when we are picked low,” Housel said. “That is true, but not sure about the DNA part.”
Auburn faces another crucial juncture in its program’s history in 2016. Expectations are not high, but does that mean the Tigers can jump up and surprise folks with an unexpected run as they did during eight memorable seasons since 1957?
Below is a sampling of triumph and disappointment stemming from expectations, but these are the moments in Auburn football history that stick out. With help from Housel, SEC Country compiled 17 seasons in which Auburn proved the experts wrong.
Auburn started the season unranked, opened the year with a 7-0 win at No. 8 Tennessee and went on to finish 10-0 to win the SEC title and claim an AP national championship — one of two national titles recognized by the school — in a season in which the Tigers knocked off three ranked opponents.
Auburn was on a hot streak under Shug Jordan following two unbeaten seasons, but the No. 3 Tigers faltered out of the gate with a 3-0 loss to unranked Tennessee. The Tigers finished a disappointing 7-3 with losses to rivals Georgia and Alabama at the end of the season.
Auburn come out of nowhere to finish 9-2 and rank fifth nationally in the AP poll. A trip to the Orange Bowl resulted in a 13-7 loss to No. 6 Miami in the Orange Bowl. The quick rise from unranked to No. 5 in the nation set the Tigers up for high expectations in 1964.
Auburn was the darkhorse candidate to win the national title and Sports Illustrated picked the Tigers to finish No. 1 and win their second national title under Shug Jordan. The Tigers instead finished a disappointing 6-4, rising as high as No. 7 in Week 3 before a 20-0 loss at Kentucky.
This roster represented yet another Shug Jordan team to come out of nowhere to shock the national landscape despite losing Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Pat Sullivan in 1971. The Tigers were picked near the bottom of the SEC but instead finished 10-1 and went from unranked to No. 5 in the AP poll.
This group of scrappy players would famously become known as The Amazins’, and set up high expectations going into the 1973 season.
No. 12 Auburn started the season strong with back-to-back wins. But a 21-0 loss at No. 9 Tennessee (seeing a trend here? Tennessee was the fulcrum to many of Jordan’s great and disappointing seasons) set up the spiral that would follow. The Tigers lost four of their last five games by an average of 18 points.
The 6-6 record didn’t give Auburn high hopes heading into the next season.
It’s not often you see a program defy expectations — good or bad — in three consecutive seasons, but Shug Jordan’s bunch did just that. These Tigers went from unranked to No. 8 in the AP poll and No. 6 in the UPI poll following a 27-3 win against No. 11 Texas in the Gator Bowl. Auburn finished 10-2.
High expectations were once again placed on Shug Jordan’s team following an out-of-nowhere performance in 1974. Auburn was slotted as high as No. 7 nationally in Week 1, but the Tigers didn’t produce and finished 4-6-1 in Jordan’s final season as the coach, which capped a 25-year career as Auburn’s winningest coach. It was only his second losing season in his Auburn career.
It wouldn’t be until the arrival of Pat Dye in the 1980s that the Auburn faithful felt confident about their group of Tigers again.
It’s easy to look at 1982 and the amazing SEC title run in 1983 as seasons Auburn proved the experts wrong. The truth is the media and experts weren’t too far off on their pre-season projections.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the Tigers seemed primed to make a run to the national championship after earning the nod from the New York Times in 1983. Auburn started the season No. 1 but lost back-to-back games to Miami and Texas to open the season and finished 9-4. The key to the lack of success? Bo Jackson missed a sizable portion of the season with separated shoulder. He later earned MVP honors in the Liberty Bowl. His career-low in carries (87) for the season would set up a run for the ages in his senior season.
The 1985 season always will be defined by Bo Jackson’s Heisman Trophy (1,786 yards, 17 touchdowns on 278 carries), but he wasn’t the only Auburn entity facing high expectations. Auburn jumped to No. 1 in Week 3 but lost to — you guessed it — unranked Tennessee, 38-20. Auburn finished 8-4 and 3-3 in the SEC.
At the end of the regular season, Jackson held up his Heisman Trophy to become the second player in Auburn history to win the award.
This was a borderline pick. Voters ranked Auburn at No. 3 in the preseason. The team jumped as high as No. 2 in the polls, but lost three games, tied No. 5 Tennessee and finished the season 19th after entering the Peach Bowl as an unranked team. The Tigers beat Indiana 27-23 to jump back into the polls. The win against No. 7 Florida State always will be memorable.
This was the ultimate turnaround of the 1990s on the Plains.
Terry Bowden replaced legendary coach Pat Dye following a 5-5-1 season. Facing probation, Bowden somehow pulled the Tigers together to finish 11-0. Television couldn’t broadcast Auburn because of the probation, so Alabama showed the Iron Bowl on close-captioned TV sets at Bryan-Denny Stadium as No. 6 Auburn defeated the No. 11 Crimson Tide 22-14 to cap the perfect season.
No bowl loomed on the horizon (again because of probation), but the first 11-0 season in Auburn history set up high expectations throughout Bowden’s career. His team started 9-0 in 1994, but a tie to Georgia and a 21-14 loss to Alabama at Legion Field ended the regular season and dashed national title hopes.
Bowden’s time at Auburn ended four years later in the middle of the 1998 season.
Auburn fans remember this season because of the JetGate scandal involving coach Tommy Tuberville.
The Tigers opened at No. 6 in the polls in Tuberville’s fifth season, but back-to-back losses to Southern California and Georgia Tech started the year and set the tone for a tumultuous behind-the-scenes battle for power. Three straight losses to nationally-ranked SEC teams prompted Auburn University president William Walker and booster Bobby Lowder to look at a change at the top of the program. Rumors swirled and Tuberville expected to be fired as his team prepared to face Alabama in the regular-season finale. Word got out of a clandestine meeting in Louisville among Auburn administrators and Louisville coach Bobby Petrino (Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2002).
Auburn then defeated Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Suddenly, fan support reverted back to Tuberville, who survived as Auburn instead made changes in the administration. Petrino tried to float his name out there for the job twice more, but his reputation was ruined and Auburn proved to be the job he could never have, despite a successful stint and BCS berth at Arkansas later in his career.
What followed the next season was sweet redemption for Tuberville.
Auburn returned a strong team in 2004, including Jason Campbell at quarterback. Preseason prognosticators labeled Auburn with a No. 17 preseason ranking.
Motivated by the JetGate snafu of 2003, Tuberville and Co. led the Tigers to an undefeated season. The problem? The BCS computers never let Auburn into the national title game and the Tigers had to settle for a 16-13 win in the Sugar Bowl after winning the SEC title.
Would Auburn have defeated powerful USC, which dispatched Oklahoma 55-19 in the title game? That’s an argument for another day, but Tuberville actively has sought some sort of recognition as national champion ever since. He hasn’t received it from Auburn, which recognizes only two titles. Auburn finished No. 2 in the polls.
What else can be written that hasn’t been already about Cam Newton? The once-in-a-generation quarterback proved it by leading the Tigers to an undefeated season and national title with a 22-19 victory against Oregon in the BCS Championship. Auburn had some close calls, but a combination of Newton’s run to the Heisman Trophy (who will ever forget that run against LSU?) and a bend-but-don’t break defense led by tackle Nick Fairley pushed the Tigers to the promised land.
Gus Malzahn’s offense hit its stride in the last half of the season, despite controversy surrounding Newton’s eligibility and recruitment by Auburn and Mississippi State.
Auburn stood high and claimed a national title after starting the season No. 22 in the polls.
This was the ultimate turnaround in SEC history.
Auburn went from unranked and picked near the bottom of the SEC to a fairy-tale story. Quarterback Nick Marshall powered the greatest rushing attack in SEC history alongside Tre Mason. The defense did just enough in the red zone to stop opponents. And two magical moments defined a season of close calls, exciting finishes and tremendous effort: the Prayer at Jordan-Hare against Georgia and the Kick Six against Alabama.
People forget that the 2013 Iron Bowl was the highest-ranked matchup between the rivals in the storied history of the programs. Chris Davis’ 100-yard return of a missed field goal with no time remaining always will be the story of that great game. With the SEC West on the line, Auburn was the victor and went on to win an SEC title before falling 13 seconds short of a national championship in a heartbreaking loss to Florida State in the BCS Championship.
Auburn tied for the greatest year-to-year turnaround in college football history, but fell one win short of what would have been one of the greatest seasons in all of sports.
The media picked Auburn to win the SEC title — though it predicted Alabama to win the SEC West, thanks to a strange point system in the voting at SEC Media Days.
The future seemed bright with Jeremy Johnson taking the controls at quarterback. Auburn opened the season No. 6 in the country, but what transpired during the first month of the season was a disaster. Johnson co-led the nation with 6 interceptions through the first three games, Carl Lawson and two running backs got hurt, receivers struggled and the offense went nowhere quick in the hurry-up, no-huddle attack. The Tigers came close to losing to in-state FCS team Jacksonville State, but tied the game in the final minute to force overtime.
The Tigers crumbled under expectations and finished 7-6 with a victory in the Birmingham Bowl with redshirt freshman Sean White starting the game at quarterback.