Alabama vs. Auburn: The 10 biggest upsets in the rivalry's history
Alabama football has rivalries.
And then it has The Rivalry. The Iron Bowl. The biggest one of them all, probably by a few hundred country miles, or in this case about 160 miles — the distance in the drive from Tuscaloosa to Auburn.
Yeah, Alabama vs. Auburn is absolutely that gigantic, enormous, gargantuan and whatever other big or little words you want to attach to a rivalry that means literally everything to a state.
As one of the many old sayings for one of the richest rivalries in all of sports goes: Alabama and Auburn play each other in football on 1 day per year, and the people of Alabama spend the other 364 talking about it.
Or something like that.
There are so many of those cute phrases for an ancient, ageless rivalry that knows no bounds but definitely has boundaries.
In this rivalry of rivalries, you’re either on 1 side or the other. You dare not even attempt to mix allegiances or hide behind the proverbial curtain when the ball doesn’t bounce your way that particular year.
It’s college football’s version of Duke-North Carolina in basketball, of Red Sox-Yankees in baseball.
Alabama-Auburn is absolute top-of-the-line when it comes to sports rivalries, and it could arguably be the most passionate, the most important of them all, simply because it’s in a state with no professional sports teams. In Alabama, you’re born into either Crimson Tide or Tigers fandom and you spend the rest of your days screaming for that team until you can’t speak the next day, and you are laid to rest with the dried tears of joy or pain from the victories and losses through your lifetime.
It’s that big.
It arrives in late November, always around Thanksgiving, at the end of the regular season when the stakes are highest, and it’s a rivalry, so it rarely goes exactly the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes, even oftentimes, it goes completely haywire. Sometimes, there is an upset in Tuscaloosa or on The Plains, and in those years the losing fan base has to answer for it until the next Iron Bowl comes around.
That’s 364 days of teeth-gnashing or 364 days of euphoria, no in between, no matter what your record looks like in those other 11 games.
The official all-time Iron Bowl scoreboard looks like this going into the Nov. 26 showdown in Tuscaloosa: Alabama 48 wins, Auburn 37 wins, and 1 tie.
Here, we give you the 10 biggest upsets in the storied history of the Iron Bowl. And for dramatic effect, we’ll count it down in inverse order, from the 10th-biggest upset to the biggest of all.
10. 1953: Alabama 10, Auburn 7
It was a really weird season for Harold Drew’s Crimson Tide, who tied 3 games, all of them SEC contests — against LSU, Tennessee and Mississippi State — and all by the 6th game of the season. By the time Bama got to the Iron Bowl, the Tide was unranked and Auburn was No. 16 coming into the Nov. 28 showdown at Legion Field in Birmingham.
So naturally, the Crimson Tide rose up yet again, beating Auburn for the 5th time in 6 years since the revival of The Rivalry to clinch the SEC championship and a berth in the Cotton Bowl. The Tigers scored their only touchdown (and points) on a 2-yard run in the 1st quarter by Charles Hataway, which capped a drive that included long runs by Fob James — future governor of Alabama — and a gentleman by the name of Vince Dooley (yep, that one).
Bama tied it at 7-7 on William Stone’s 15-yard TD run, and Bobby Luna’s 28-yard field goal in the 4th quarter lifted the Crimson Tide to another stinging victory over the Tigers (or glorious, depending on your allegiance). Alabama finished 4-0-3 in the SEC to claim the conference championship, while Auburn settled for a 4-2-1 league mark. And while the Tide got blown out by Rice in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day, they had the SEC crown and the Iron Bowl bragging rights for yet another year.
9. 1990: Alabama 16, Auburn 7
Bama lost to Auburn 4 times in a row from 1986-89 and was unranked, while the Tigers were ranked 20th going into the matchup at Legion Field, so Auburn had ideas of pushing the streak to 5. But the Tide said no, as Gene Stallings’ otherwise nondescript 1st season in Tuscaloosa neared its end. Alabama’s record for the year was a meager 7-5, but it made sure 1 of the 5 losses wasn’t to Auburn.
Stallings’ Alabama tenure, which would reach national championship glory a few seasons later, started ingloriously in 1990 with 3 losses to start the year. But they ended the regular season with 4 straight wins, capped by the Iron Bowl slugfest. While Alabama wasn’t particularly great, its defense was pretty darn good and it dominated Auburn that day.
It was the 7th game in a row in which the Crimson Tide defense held its opponent to single digits. Bama would allow 34 points to Louisville in the Fiesta Bowl a month later, but in the regular-season finale, against a solid Auburn team, the Tide made up for lost time in the rivalry and beat the Tigers for the 1st time since 1985. It wasn’t the finest moment on The Plains for veteran Auburn head coach Pat Dye, whose team finished 8-3-1.
8. 1959: Alabama 10, Auburn 0
It was Bear Bryant’s 2nd season, having lost his 1st Iron Bowl as Alabama’s head coach the year before and the Crimson Tide had lost 5 in a row to the Tigers. There was angst in Tuscaloosa, and so 19th-ranked Alabama did something about it against 11th-ranked Auburn at Legion Field, pitching a shutout to finish the regular season with its 5th straight win.
Yes, both teams were ranked going into that year’s showdown, but the combination of the Tide not having beaten the Tigers since 1953 and struggling the week before in a 14-7 home win over Memphis State put this Iron Bowl on our list. Also, the Tide had that 2nd-year coach on the sideline who couldn’t step right in and beat Auburn in his 1st season (just kidding — that coach did just fine over the next quarter-century in Tuscaloosa).
After a scoreless 1st quarter, Alabama grabbed a 3-0 lead at halftime on a 27-yard field goal by Tommy Brooker. The Tide tacked on a crucial insurance touchdown in the 3rd quarter when Bobby Skelton found Marlin Dyess on a 39-yard touchdown pass. That cushion was plenty for a Tide defense that had only allowed double-digit points once that season, in a season-opening loss to Georgia.
7. 1960: Alabama 3, Auburn 0
The Bear had the hang of it when it came to beating Auburn by the time his 3rd Iron Bowl came around, and his 17th-ranked Crimson Tide came into the showdown in Birmingham with just 1 loss. Meanwhile, Auburn was ranked 8th with an 8-1 record, and the Tigers had a wealth of tailwind coming off a 57-21 walloping of Florida State the week before.
Bama finished 3rd in the SEC that year. Auburn finished 4th. Both had rock-solid defenses. So what happened? Exactly what you’d expect to happen when hated rivals collide and both are also good, with 2 great defenses and 1 sole, desperate purpose: You get a 3-0 rock fight with the only score of the game being a 22-yard field goal by Brooker in the 2nd quarter. Bama’s defense locked it down from there, shutting out Auburn for the 2nd consecutive year.
The Crimson Tide were just getting started smothering the Tigers during those years. Two more shutouts of Auburn followed in 1961 and 1962, but those were hardly upsets with Alabama being ranked in the top 5 and Auburn being unranked in those games, which the Tide won by a combined 72-0. But in ’60, Bryant’s beastly defense posted 5 shutouts, and it saved its last for the school it liked beating the most.
6. 1972: Auburn 17, Alabama 16
The Tigers lost only 1 game in coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan’s 22nd season at the helm, and it wasn’t to the hated Crimson Tide. Auburn’s only hiccup that year was a midseason blowout loss at LSU. But by the time they got to the Iron Bowl on Dec. 2 in Birmingham, the Tigers were rolling again. They were on a 4-game winning streak and were anxious to avenge the previous season’s 31-7 loss to the Tide.
Auburn was ranked 9th going into the 1972 Iron Bowl, but Alabama was No. 2 and ended up taking the SEC crown. Bama didn’t, however, get the Iron Bowl bragging rights after Auburn pulled the upset and knocked the 10-0 Tide from the ranks of the unbeaten. The Tigers went on to win the Gator Bowl over Colorado, but 4 weeks before that it was all about beating The Bear, and they did in the freakiest of ways.
This was the famous (or infamous, if your allegiance is with the boys from Tuscaloosa) “Punt Bama Punt” game, when Auburn roared back from a 16-0 hole with 10 minutes left in the game courtesy of a field goal followed by 2 blocked punts that were both returned for touchdowns. It was stunning, it was surreal, but it happened that day at Legion Field and Tigers fans old enough to remember it will all swear they were there.
5. 1984: Alabama 17, Auburn 15
Ray Perkins’ Crimson Tide were unranked on the 1st day of December as they readied to face an 11th-ranked Auburn team that featured all-world running back Bo Jackson. We always say that the Iron Bowl is both teams’ Super Bowl of that season, but in a lost 5-6 season for Alabama, beating Auburn and beating Bo would make the winter a lot more tolerable in Tuscaloosa.
The Tigers finished 3rd in the SEC that season and they were supposed to hand the Tide a third straight loss in the series. Except that didn’t happen, and it cost Auburn a berth in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers were forced to settle for a Liberty Bowl victory over Arkansas, so Bama got the last laugh against Auburn despite finishing with a losing record. That’s the beauty (and pain) of the Iron Bowl.
Two years after his famous “Over the Top” dive into the end zone in the 1982 victory over Alabama, Jackson was on the opposite end of the rivalry’s spectrum. He mistakenly ran the wrong way on a late 4th-down play from the Bama 1-yard line, where he was supposed to block for Brent Fullwood. The play was blown up, the Tigers lost, and the massive miscommunication went down in Iron Bowl lore as “Wrong Way Bo.”
4. 1985: Alabama 25, Auburn 23
The Crimson Tide were really good in ’85. They went 9-2-1, finishing 3rd in the SEC — a few places ahead of Auburn, in fact. But on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at Legion Field, they weren’t supposed to beat the 7th-ranked Tigers and Jackson, in his final Iron Bowl.
But they did. And they did it in the most dramatic of ways, with what became known in Iron Bowl lore — especially in Alabama lore — as “The Kick.” Bama trailed 23-22 late in the 4th quarter before quarterback Mike Shula (a glorious name from the past) dragged his team into Auburn territory, trying to get kicker Van Tiffin 1 last shot to win the game.
The first mission was accomplished after Shula hit Greg Richardson, who somehow got out of bounds at the Auburn 35-yard line to set Tiffin up for a 52-yard field goal that would either become a footnote or one of the most famous kicks in Iron Bowl history. It became the latter, as Tiffin’s boot was on target as time expired. It was Tiffin’s 4th field goal of the game and it set off a wild celebration. It also handed the Tigers their 3rd loss of the season and they didn’t in the Cotton Bowl, where they were blown out by Texas A&M.
3. 2001: Alabama 31, Auburn 7
The year before, the Crimson Tide were shut out — at Bryant-Denny Stadium, no less, as the Iron Bowl moved from Legion Field to the 2 campuses for good in 1993. That and the fact that Alabama had a new head coach in Dennis Franchione made what the 2001 Tide did that much more impressive. They went from being blanked at home by their hated rival to lighting up the Jordan-Hare Stadium scoreboard the following year as an unranked team, ultimately finishing just 7-5 and 4-4 in the SEC.
Not bad at all. And better yet for the Tide and their fans, it sent the Tigers’ season spiraling, as Auburn lost to LSU in the regular-season finale and then fell to North Carolina in the Peach Bowl to also finish 7-5 after starting the year 6-1.
The Tide outgained the Tigers 549-272 in total offense that day, including an astounding 328 yards rushing. Santonio Beard was Bama’s horse on the ground, piling up 199 yards on just 20 carries, with 2 touchdowns. Auburn scored its only points in the 2nd quarter, and then its offense was never heard from again. It was an embarrassing performance by the Tigers and a special kind of day for the Tide. That’s just the brutal way this rivalry goes.
2. 2002: Auburn 17, Alabama 7
The following year, the shoe was on the other foot, as the saying goes. In this case the glory was on Auburn’s sideline, as the Tigers went to Bryant-Denny Stadium and returned the favor from the year before, suffocating the 9th-ranked Tide in a stunner. Auburn held an Alabama team that had been lighting up the scoreboard all fall to a season low in points.
The Tide finished atop the SEC West that season with a 6-2 record, but they couldn’t participate in the SEC Championship Game or postseason play because of NCAA probation. That didn’t take away the euphoria that was felt all the way back to The Plains, though. Auburn wasn’t ranked when it toppled the Tide, but it shot into the rankings at No. 19 and then sprung another upset in the Capital One Bowl, knocking off No. 10 Penn State to end the season with a flourish at 9-4.
Tre Smith spearheaded the Tigers’ ground game against the Tide, rushing 25 times for 126 yards. It set a wonderful tone for Auburn that day, as the Tigers stunned the Tuscaloosa crowd by taking a 17-0 lead into halftime and never letting go. Alabama finally avoided the shutout with a score in the 3rd quarter, but that was it.
1. 2019: Auburn 48, Alabama 45
OK, we admit it. This might be a little recency bias putting the Tigers’ thrilling victory at Jordan-Hare from just 3 years ago at the top of our list. But we’re doing it anyway, because this particular upset had all the ingredients you would want (though maybe not for Alabama fans) in an upset in a special rivalry.
You had an Alabama team — a Nick Saban-coached squad in a dynasty era — that was ranked 5th, and an Auburn team ranked 16th, far away enough from the Tide in the rankings to justify making this the No. 1 upset. You had the home team doing the upsetting, so there was the delirious home crowd anticipating one of the biggest celebrations you could ever see on Toomer’s Corner.
You had an insanely high-scoring game that featured nearly combined 100 points, played in unseasonably warm temperatures on a sunny day in Auburn. As venerable as Legion Field is, you had arguably the greatest rivalry in college football being staged on campus, not on a neutral field. You had an overflowing crowd of 87,451 that afternoon at Jordan-Hare, most of whom ventured there to see the Tigers slay the Tide 1 more time, as they did 2 years earlier when Alabama was No. 1.
This was a year in the Saban era when Bama didn’t win the national title, settling for an 11-2 season. But they were still really good, as were the Tigers, who finished 9-4. All the ingredients were there to see everything that Alabama vs. Auburn is all about. And in a classic rivalry that delivers more often than not, the Tigers and the Tide delivered a classic that day.
Alabama was a solid, 3-point road favorite. But quarterback Mac Jones and the Tide were ripe for another upset in a series that’s delivered more than a few stunning ones, having just lost to eventual national champion LSU at home 3 weeks earlier.
Naturally, and beautifully, the Auburn faithful rushed the field after it was all over, the SEC slapped the school with a $250,000 fine and all was just fine. Because the Tigers beat the Tide, and the Iron Bowl was once again at its zenith.
A few weeks from now, another Iron Bowl will kick off in Tuscaloosa. A road upset by a below-average Auburn team is highly unlikely.
But it isn’t impossible. When it comes to Alabama and Auburn, on that 1 day per year when everything is on the line in this football-mad state, absolutely nothing is out of the realm of possibility.