If you’re an Auburn fan, you know that we play it conservative to start the season. Always have, probably always will. With a full SEC slate ahead, there’s little since in throttling it at the starting gun, or so it seems. Besides, more fans will show up for a cupcake opener more than any other game save for homecoming. At the same time that we kick off at JHS, LSU will be getting ready to tee it up against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome. It could have been us instead–taking on UCLA in a match that we turned down last year. Yea, I’m still sore about it. I hate that we squandered the opportunity to be the feature attraction in CFB for opening week. Rarely do we garnish so much attention and fall in the limelight for the first game of the season.
But it has happened on a few occasions the past thirty years–Auburn opens the season against a BCS out-of-conference opponent–even in the days before there was such a thing as the BCS. The OOC games seem to attract the most attention, probably because it’s even rarer for us to open with a conference opponent. Only five times has that happened in the last 30 years–four times against Ole Miss in the 90s and once against Kentucky. None of those games decided any conference or division race, but there have been a few openers over the last three decades that have stood out. Even rarer still? A road opener. See if you remember any.
1) Miami, 1984, L 18-20. Kickoff Classic, East Rutherford NJ. The second Kickoff Classic game and the second one to match the numbers one and two teams from the previous season. The Hurricanes had leaped over Auburn in the final 1983 poll after beating #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl while Auburn outlasted Michigan in the Sugar. The stage was set for a spectacular opening game for college football, which had crept into August for only the second time ever, but things had changed for the Canes, who were under first year coach Jimmy Johnson. Miami would go on to a disappointing 8-5 season, including three straight losses. Auburn would finish the season 9-4, and with a healthy Bo Jackson coming back off injury, would be positioned the following season to be ranked close to the top in the pre-season polls.
Many don’t remember these kickoff games, which started out in Giants Stadium, and spun off to the west coast as the Pigskin Classic. What actually ended these games after 2002 wasn’t a lack of interest, but a change in the NCAA rules covering ‘extra’ games being played at the beginning of the season. Beginning in 2008, the Chick Fil-A kickoff game was born from the addition of the added 12th game and a further change in the rules. Call me biased, but maybe Atlanta is a better venue than the Jersey Shore.
2) Southern California, 2003, L 0-23. A crazy turn of events in this opener, as Auburn, the pre-season AP #1 ranked team, got blown out at home with nary a wimper to the team that would end the season with the #1 AP ranking, which would be the first, and actually, onlynational championship won by the Trojans last decade. Auburn not only showed that it couldn’t handle the hype, but revealed cracks in it’s foundation that would eventually lead to Jetgate. Still loaded with talent the following year, the Tigers missed by a few hundreds of a BCS point a rematch with USC in for the national championship.
3) Southern California, 2002, L 17-24. Everyone remembers this game as the Tigers dared to go on the road to open the home and home series with the Trojans, who were just in their second year following Pete Carroll’s 6-6 inaugural effort. Thousands of Tiger fans made the trek out to LA, where USC was just coming out of a two-decade old slumber under the three coaches that followed John Robinson, and went on to post an 11-2 mark that year. That everyone remembers, but no one knew that USC was that good at that time. This game was entirely winnable. It was 14-all at the half, and USC finally pulled ahead for good at the top of the 4th quarter. Auburn went on to a 9-4 season, including a Capital One Bowl win over Penn State, which set the stage for the lofty pre-season ranking the next year.
4) Texas, 1987, W 31-3. The second part of two home-and-homes with the Longhorns played in the 80s and early 90s. Auburn laid an egg in the first go-around, getting blown out by Texas at home for their only loss in the 1983 season. As a matter of fact, Texas would have won the national championship that year had they not lost their last game in the Sugar Bowl to Georgia by one point. Auburn then came up short again in 1984 in Austin. This second home-and-home commenced three years later, this time starting in Auburn. The Tigers were ready, in the middle of a massive run led by Pat Dye. Texas had waned under Fred Akers, who left after the 1986 season. Texas finished the year 7-5, but Auburn had their second victory over the Horns in a blowout in Jordan-Hare, the first one coming in the Gator Bowl in the 1974 season. Auburn would then complete the sweep in 1991 in Austin–the last time these teams played.
5) Kansas State, 2007, W 23-13. A made-for-TV event arranged by ESPN, this one turned out to be a wild one, pun-intended. Actually, this was leg one of a home-and-home, with Auburn to make the return game in 2014. The Tigers came out of the gate slow, with K-State actually going ahead by a point to start the 4th quarter . A late TD throw by Brandon Cox with two minutes remaining put us ahead before Wildcat QB Josh Freeman fumbled and Antonio Coleman ran it back 34 yards to seal it. As wobbly as Auburn looked, the worst was yet to come, with consecutive losses to South Florida and Mississippi State before the Tigers finally straightened things out to finish the year 9-4. Before the end of the season, Al Borges was gone as OC and the Tony Franklin system was being implemented.
Runners-Up: 2006 Washington State, 2005 Georgia Tech, 1997 Virginia, 1982 Wake Forest, 1980 TCU