Auburn football: Can Williams reproduce his team’s 2002 Iron Bowl upset?
Only once in the 86-game history of the Iron Bowl rivalry, which began in 1893, has an unranked Auburn team ever beaten a top-10 Alabama team. That was on Nov. 23, 2002, in Tuscaloosa.
On that day, Auburn used a stifling defense and a seldom-used running back to shut down No. 9 Alabama on its way to a 17-7 upset victory.
Current Auburn interim head coach Cadillac Williams was on that team. He did not play because of a broken leg. Williams was 1 of 3 Auburn running backs who sat out the game with injuries. Ronnie Brown had a sprained ankle and Chris Butler a pulled groin.
Fourth-string running back Tre Smith, a freshman, put the team on his shoulders, rushing 25 times for 126 yards against the nation’s top-rated defense in his 1st start at Auburn. In addition, quarterback Jason Campbell threw for 169 yards and 2 TD passes to Robert Johnson as 8-4 Auburn (5-3 SEC), a 10.5-point underdog, built a 17-0 halftime lead and held on to beat 9-3 Alabama (6-2 SEC).
The Auburn defense, on that day, turned over Alabama 3 times on downs in the 4th quarter. It was a full team effort that got the job done. And that’s what it will take on Saturday for Auburn to defeat No. 8 Alabama, extend their win streak to 3 games and become bowl-eligible.
It will be a tall task for sure, but that didn’t stop the 2002 Tigers from reaching their goal.
Having played on that team, Williams should be able to relate to this year’s group of Tigers just what it will take to come away from Tuscaloosa with a victory. He knows 1st-hand the preparation, the emotion, the proper mindset necessary from this team to duplicate what the Tigers pulled off 20 years ago, nearly to the day.
Can he do it? Can he help cause history to repeat itself? Can he convey that winning attitude? So far, it seems he has. Auburn has won both games since Williams was named interim head coach.
Granted, game planning for Texas A&M and Western Kentucky isn’t quite the same as putting together a game plan for an Alabama team still clinging to the slimmest of mathematical chance at backing into 1 of 4 CFP slots. There’s a lot on the line Saturday for Alabama as well.
Still, Williams has the Tigers trending upward. The combined 27 points allowed over the past 2 games is the fewest over a 2-game stretch this season. And the 41 points scored on Saturday are topped only by the 42 Auburn put on Mercer in the season opener.
Auburn opened as a prohibitive 24-point underdog, more than double the margin that the 2002 Tigers entered Bryant-Denny Stadium as. However, I feel comfortable in saying that this won’t have a negative impact on either Williams, nor the Auburn team as it gets ready for the 2022 version of the Iron Bowl.
Should the Tigers do what few outside The Plains believe they can, it’s not inconceivable that a new contract could be waiting for Williams as he exits Bryan-Denny, a place the Tigers have had little success recently. Auburn has lost the past 5 games there after winning 5 of the first 6 played in Tuscaloosa. The series shifted from Birmingham to home campuses permanently after the 1998 season.
Yes, do the unexpected Saturday and Auburn will have no choice but to hand the reins over to Williams and remove the interim tag. Certainly, the odds are stacked against him, but Williams has beaten long odds before. That’s how he has gotten to this point.
On Saturday, he’ll have his Tigers ready for the challenge.