Storied Auburn-Florida game should happen more. Let's hope Saturday lives up to these 5 classics
You’d never know it based on how few the teams meet under the SEC scheduling format, but Florida and Auburn will meet for the 84th time this weekend in The Swamp. The game will mark their first meeting since 2011 and the first in Gainesville since 2007.
That 2007 season, Auburn handed Florida its first home loss of the Urban Meyer era, nipping Tim Tebow and the Gators 20-17 when Wes Byrum made not one, but two 43-yard field goals as time expired.
That game was just another great chapter in a glorious old rivalry that dates all the way back to 1912.
Auburn is the closest fellow SEC institution to the University of Florida geographically, and the proximity between the two campuses by railroad and later automobile (about a 5-hour drive from The Swamp to Jordan-Hare) made this a common-sense matchup for many years.
Indeed, from the end of World War II until 2002, they played 57 consecutive seasons. In 2000, they played twice, when the Gators and Auburn played a regular season rematch in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators won, handing Steve Spurrier his final SEC title.
Then, in one of his final acts as SEC Commissioner, Roy Kramer had a bad day and approved a measure adopting, for the 2002 season, a new scheduling format wherein each member institution played 1 permanent cross-division game annually and rotated the 1 remaining cross-divisional game.
This put Auburn in a terrible spot, as it had cultivated natural rivalries with 2 SEC East schools: Florida and Georgia. The Georgia rivalry, nicknamed “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry,” stayed, and Florida was left to play LSU annually. The Gators and Auburn have met only on a rotational basis ever since.
For many reasons, that’s a shame.
First, the geographic proximity means playing only once every 6 seasons or so makes basically zero sense. This is a signature game for the fan bases and one that is easy to travel to, especially for Florida fans whose closest road trip otherwise is the South Carolina game. The easy fix, of course, would be to move Auburn, geographically one of the eastern-most SEC institutions, to the East Division and slide Missouri to the West. This would be cost-efficient in non-revenue sports, limiting travel costs and expenses. It would also allow Auburn to preserve both its sacred, state bragging rights war with Alabama and lock-in its 2 East division rivalry games against Georgia and Florida. It’s made sense to adopt this change at least since Missouri and Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, but nothing has changed and regrettably, it’s unlikely anything will, at least in the short term.
Florida and Auburn meeting so rarely is also a shame because this game has long delivered the goods, with high drama, SEC and national implications along with a host of epic games part of the history that is renewed Saturday in the Swamp.
Here’s a look at 5 of the most famous games in Florida-Auburn history, with the hope that eventually, the SEC will come to its senses and lock in more.
1966: Spurrier’s kick
Given the Gators decision to wear the 1960s throwback uniforms this weekend against Auburn, we had to start here.
The Gators entered the game unbeaten and ranked in the top 10, led by an All-American QB named Steve Spurrier. Ralph Jordan’s Auburn team came to Gainesville with upset on their minds and played Florida to a standstill for nearly 4 quarters.
With the score tied 27, Spurrier led the Gators on a nice drive, but Florida stalled around the 39-yard line following a controversial intentional grounding penalty.
On that team, Florida didn’t really have a kicker coach that Ray Graves thought could make a 40-yard field goal. During a timeout, Spurrier convinced Graves to let him try the kick. The rest, as they say, is history:
In 1966, @GatorsFB's Steve Spurrier kicked a 40-yard field goal to win a game vs. Auburn.
Spurrier then became the school's first Heisman winner ever.
📺: Saturdays in the South Part 3 pic.twitter.com/Z7CmTKQGYO
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 18, 2019
In those days, Hesiman ballots went out before the season ended, and many voters received their ballots the week after Spurrier’s kick. That memory, plus 2,000+ passing yards on a 9-2 team, helped Steve “Superior,” as Jordan called him, win the Heisman that season, the first of 3 Florida quarterbacks to do so.
1990: Spurrier silences Pat Dye
Steve Spurrier was back at his alma mater as the Head Ball Coach in 1990, and the Gators were a top 20 team with a fascinating, pass happy offense based on spreading the field and attacking mismatches.
Auburn was unbeaten, ranked in the top 5 and confident, with coach Pat Dye dismissive of Florida’s new offensive tactics.
“It’s a gimmick offense, to me, not fundamental football,” Dye told the media ahead of the game.
Dye was wrong.
Florida scored early and often, building a 34-7 halftime lead and winning 48-7. The loss was the worst of Dye’s career.
2001: Auburn stops No. 1 Florida
Florida was No. 1 again in 2001 when the Gators visited Jordan-Hare Stadium in a rematch of the prior season’s SEC Championship Game.
Both teams played without stars: Florida was without All-SEC running back Earnest Graham and Auburn was forced to play without injured starter Jason Campbell.
Backup Daniel Cobb was safe and effective, while the Gators couldn’t get the run game going and were forced to ride the rocket right arm of All-American Rex Grossman, who threw 40+ times despite the game being played in the windy, rainy remnants of a tropical storm.
Grossman’s 4 interceptions — the last of which was clearly impacted by wind — kept Auburn in the game, setting up short fields for the Tigers, who consistently converted turnovers into points.
Late in the game, Cobb led Auburn on a drive into field goal range, and kicker Damon Duval connected from 44 yards with 10 seconds remaining to hand Florida 1 of its only 2 losses in Spurrier’s final season in Gainesville.
2002: Grossman’s revenge
Spurrier was gone, but Grossman, the Heisman runner-up in 2001, elected to stay in school and play his redshirt junior season under new coach Ron Zook.
The Gators had an up and down season, which featured multiple losses in The Swamp. A week before the Auburn game, Florida was embarrassed by Nick Saban and LSU in Gainesville 36-7, the worst home loss for Florida in over two decades.
Auburn figured to be just as tough a game for the Gators, but Grossman came out hot, leading the Gators on 2 early touchdown drives as the Gators built a 23-7 lead.
After a horrific injury to All-SEC running back Cadillac Wiliams, Auburn rallied, with backup running back Ronnie Brown (162 yards) doing most the damage. The Tigers erased the Gators’ lead and in a strange case of deja vu, Damon Duval lined up for a winning field goal from the same distance he had beaten Florida the year before.
This time, Florida blocked the kick, setting up this incredible, under pressure and ultimately winning throw from Rex Grossman in overtime.
25 days until @GatorsFB. 25 is for Rex Grossman’s 25 yard game winning touchdown pass to Taylor Jacobs in overtime against Auburn in 2002- a ball he threw as he was getting leveled. The #Gators would stop Auburn on their ensuing possession for their last ever win over the Tigers. pic.twitter.com/376RjZ3uJ2
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) August 7, 2018
1994: (Patrick) Nix to Sanders
The only way to bookend the list this week.
By 1994, Spurrier was ushering in a golden age of Gators football as Florida’s Head Ball Coach, revolutionizing the SEC from a 3-yards and cloud-of-dust neanderthal to a national brand in the process.
The 1994 season was Spurrier’s 5th in Gainesville and the Gators had lost only 1 game in The Swamp in that time span. Auburn was still on probation, but the Tigers had a marvelous team under Terry Bowden and arrived in Gainesville protecting a 17-game winning streak. The Gators entered the game ranked No. 1. Something had to give.
On an unusually cold October day, an absolutely bonkers game ensued in front of 85,000+ fans in The Swamp, then the largest crowd to see a football game in the state of Florida, college or pro.
Early in the game, Spurrier benched starting QB Terry Dean, whose 4 interceptions helped Auburn open a 10-point lead. Danny Wuerffel entered for Dean and rallied the Gators, throwing 3 touchdown passes, but was intercepted by Auburn’s Brian Robinson on a strange 3rd down deep throw with 1:20 to play.
“Danny got the wrong signal,” Spurrier said after the game. “We were not trying to lob it down the middle again, I can assure you. That is bad coaching, just poor coaching. We were trying to throw a corner route, but for some reason we lobbed it down there.”
With new life, Patrick Nix — who threw for 319 yards — led a drive that will forever be part of War Eagle lore, lofting this TD pass to 6-3 Frank Sanders, who outjumped Florida safety Michael Gilmore to win the game for Auburn.
This weekend, Bo Nix will get the chance to do what his Dad did and beat the Gators in The Swamp.
Regardless, with both programs ranked in the top 10 this season, College Gameday headed to Gainesville and a CBS national television audience, there’s a good chance this Florida-Auburn game will deliver something special.
If only we got to see Florida and Auburn play more.