Ask most non-Auburn SEC fans to name the conference’s most lucky team, and it shouldn’t take long to find a consensus: Auburn football.
Call it “Barn Luck,” “Auburn Jesus,” or whatever combination of navy good fortune and burnt orange divine intervention your Twitter timeline prefers, but those people come to the same conclusion: The Tigers benefit more from the bounce of the ball than any of their SEC rivals. On the one hand, this is an understandable reaction to 2013, when the Prayer in Jordan-Hare and the Kick Six gave Auburn two of the most famous “lucky*” wins in recent college football memory. On the other, there’s 2004.
With four years of the College Football Playoff era producing a total of three undefeated Power 5 champions — much less five in a single season — it’s safe to declare Tommy Tuberville’s masterpiece the last-ever such champion denied the opportunity to play for a national title. But not only will the 2004 Tigers go down in college football history as the last of their kind, they’ve already gone down as the only one of their unfortunate kind, the sole undefeated Power 5 champion of the 16-year BCS era not granted their shot. You want to talk Barn luck? Sure — we’ll start with a perfect season just happening to come alongside the preseason Nos. 1 and 2 also having perfect seasons.
But if that sounds like misfortune enough, consider top-ranked USC vs. Cal, Oct. 9, 2004, at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Led by star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the No. 7 Bears outgained the Trojans 424-205, gained 28 first downs to USC’s 12, held a 14-minute edge in time of possession, and were forced to punt only once in nine possessions. Unfortunately that punt was botched to set up a short Trojans field, three more Bears possessions ended in lost fumbles, another ended in a missed 36-yard field goal, and down six Cal’s last chance ended with three Rodgers incompletions and a sack after first-and-goal from the 9. The Bears lost 23-17, having gained 178 yards on drives that yielded no points. (USC, meanwhile, began one of its five scoring drives in its own territory and gained a total of 0 yards on its non-scoring drives.)
Now, consider also No. 2 Penn State at No. 6 Ohio State, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ohio Stadium. The Nittany Lions recovered a Buckeyes fumble at the Ohio State 42 with 12:45 to play, already up 35-20. But the ensuing drive went nowhere, PSU’s punt was blocked, and the Buckeyes scored a touchdown in under a minute to cut the lead to 35-27. Penn State’s next drive reached third-and-goal at the 3, with little more than six minutes to play. But Saquon Barkley was stuffed and PSU settled for a field goal. The Buckeyes then drove 76 yards for a touchdown, forced a three-and-out, and drove 58 yards for another touchdown that won the game.
If Penn State does not lose after holding a 15-point fourth-quarter lead with the ball in Ohio State territory, the Big Ten Championship Game pits the 11-1 Nittany Lions against unbeaten Wisconsin for a win-and-in College Football Playoff berth. If Penn State does not lose after holding an eight-point lead with the ball at the Ohio State 3 and under 7 minutes to play, Alabama does not make the 2017 College Football Playoff.
The current Crimson Tide, though, are far from the first SEC team to benefit from the kind of highly unlikely** result elsewhere the 2004 Tigers never saw. Florida’s 1996 national title doesn’t happen without unbeaten No. 2 Ohio State losing at home to No. 21 Michigan (or the Buckeyes beating unbeaten Arizona State in the Rose Bowl). The 2006 Gators never face Ohio State if USC doesn’t lose 33-31 at unranked Oregon State. 2007 LSU watched Pat White get hurt and West Virginia lose the most painful Backyard Brawl in history. 2011 Alabama got its LSU rematch only after Iowa State beat Oklahoma State in double-overtime and pollsters elected to reward the Tide’s better loss over the Cowboys’ conference title. (In the novel-writing business, they call that “foreshadowing.”) 2012 Alabama would’ve been shut out of the BCS championship if not for No. 1 Oregon losing at home to Stanford in overtime.
Yes, it’s only fair to mention that same 2013 Auburn team here, even if a top-10 Michigan State team defeating an unbeaten Ohio State on a neutral field didn’t provide half the shock as the other upsets on this list. But it doesn’t change the point: an unlikely loss opening the way for an SEC team to play for the national title isn’t just a frequent occurrence, it’s been a regular occurrence for the bulk of the last 20 years, right up to 2017.
Other teams watch Penn State blow it. 2004 Auburn watched USC survive. Yes, it’s been 13 years; no, when you know Carnell and Ronnie and that defense won’t ever receive what they deserved for that season and that every team that accomplishes the same from now on will, 13 years isn’t long enough to get over it.
Is Auburn lucky? If so, it’s just the debt on 2004 being repaid, and there’s still a long way to go.
*The Prayer in Jordan-Hare may have been a tremendous slice of good fortune, but both Auburn fan and Auburn hater alike should be careful using (or denying) the term “luck” where the Kick Six is concerned. Yes, it was “lucky” in the sense that any special teams score is statistically unlikely, and a touchdown on a field goal return one of the most statistically unlikely scoring plays possible. Have Adam Griffith attempt that field goal 100 times, and Chris Davis doesn’t end up in the opposite end zone more than … 5 times? 10? 15?
But we don’t call it “luck” when Stephen Curry pulls up from 40 feet and drains a 3, even if the percentages on that shot aren’t high, either. And just as Curry put in the effort to make that shot one worth taking, so both the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline that day made choices that played a far more direct role in the Kick Six than “luck” did: Nick Saban chose to kick the field goal, Gus Malzahn chose to have Davis return it, the players executed their blocking/tackling assignments or didn’t, Davis kept his feet in bounds. None of that happened by accident.
So: if you want to use “luck” as shorthand to indicate the Kick Six was a once-in-a-lifetime lightning bolt of a way to win, fine. If you want to use it as shorthand to indicate Auburn didn’t deserve that play or that victory: not fine at all.
**To be completely fair, the Buckeyes enjoyed a healthy advantage on the stat sheet, outgaining PSU 529-283. But still: If the opponent has the ball in your territory ahead 15 early in the fourth quarter, or inside your 10 midway through the fourth up 8, your odds of winning are straight-up lousy regardless.