Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Rivalry Reborn

The bowls are entering full swing and Monday's upcoming, last-ever BCS Championship Game is one of the most eagerly anticipated in years.

The match-up is intriguing for a number of reasons, many of which have been written about in the press and yakked about on TV and radio. One reason has gotten almost no attention, however, and it is this: By pitting Auburn against Florida State, it marks the return of what used to be a major rivalry.

AU-FSU was a Reagan Era staple. The teams battled each other seven times from 1983 through 1990, and on three of those occasions both were ranked in the top seven. Auburn won the first three games, Florida State the next three, and Auburn prevailed in the finale.

This is a rivalry that deserves to be reborn because it is oh so natural. FSU is located closer to Auburn than it is to any of its ACC foes, while Auburn is nearer to FSU than it is to all but two of its thirteen SEC opponents.

Both football programs are major powers with national championships on their resumes, yet each labors in a shadow created by sharing its state with a showboat -- for just like the University of Alabama receives a disproportionate share of media love in the Yellowhammer State, the University of Florida receives a disproportionate share in the Sunshine State.

Jimbo Fisher is in his fourth year as Florida State's head coach, but long before that, while cutting his teeth, he spent six years as Auburn's quarterbacks coach.

Dameyune Craig was one of Auburn's star players during the 1990's and is now its co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach -- but during the three seasons prior to this one, he was Florida State's quarterbacks coach.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston, this year's Heisman winner, is from Bessemer, Alabama -- which also happens to be the hometown of Auburn Heisman winner Bo Jackson.

Then there is this: Bobby Bowden coached Florida State and Terry Bowden coached Auburn. The father's tenure in Tallahassee was much longer and more storied than his son's in The Loveliest Village on the Plains, but the son's is not to be sneezed at, for Terry Bowden did guide the Tigers to an undefeated season and 20-game winning streak.

That is enough about the programs' histories and similarities, however. As I look forward to the BCS Championship Game, I will use this post to look backward at the games that I consider to be the most memorable between them.


1985: The Heisman Game
The Tigers romped by a score of 59-27 after having won the first two in the series by scores of 27-24 and 42-41. So it might seem strange to exclude the first two from the list and include this game instead. But then again, the list is about what is memorable, and that does not automatically equal cliffhanging.

Bo Jackson is such a legend that it's hard to fathom the fact he barely won the Heisman over Iowa QB Chuck Long, but at the time, no one had a clue which of them would win. 28 years later the '85 vote remains the closest in Heisman history, and therefore it is safe to assume Bo would not have taken home the trophy if not for the cleat marks he left all over the Noles.

FSU was ranked eight spots higher than AU (#4 versus #12) when he took a hand-off on the first possession and galloped 53 yards to the end zone. Later, he added a 35-yard score that was equally impressive. I remember watching as a high school freshman and wondering if anyone in garnet and gold was capable of tackling him.

Speaking of Bo after the game ended, Bobby Bowden said: "I think if we would have had him, we probably would have won the game. The teams were fairly even. He's the difference." Before you laugh, be aware that the score was 31-27 at one point in the fourth quarter. Auburn Coach Pat Dye remarked: "I don't know when I've had this much fun."

1989: The Sugar Bowl
The Tigers and Seminoles took a regular season sabbatical in 1988, only to wrap up the '88 season by squaring off in the Sugar Bowl on January 2, 1989. Florida State was ranked fourth, Auburn seventh, and the latter was appearing in the Sugar Bowl for the second straight season. In other words, this was big time.

FSU drew first blood with an 84-yard touchdown drive, then added a pair of field goals to take a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter. The Tigers punched back with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Reggie Slack to Walter Reeves, sending the game into halftime with FSU ahead 13-7. Then the defenses took over and it was still 13-7 when the game ended, though Auburn did not go quietly into the good night.

With 3:30 remaining, the Tigers started a drive at their own three and drove to the FSU 22, converting three fourth downs along the way...With five seconds left, Slack threw to Freddy Weygand for what looked like a for-sure touchdown, but well before the ball arrived, Dedrick Dodge pulled Weygand down in what proved to be a smart pass interference...On the ensuing play, receiver Lawyer Tillman was open in the corner of the end zone and Slack rifled the ball to him -- only to see a certain cornerback named Deion Sanders suddenly appear and pick it off just before it arrived.

Afterward, Slack said: "That last play stunned me. Lawyer had Deion beat. I thought it was six points. Then Deion just came out of nowhere and made a tremendous interception." Sanders said: "That last play was like a storybook ending. All week long I had visualized how the game would end. I was tired from being on the field so long, but there's no quarterback who can pick on me." It was a fitting finish to his college career.

1990: The Ear-Splitter
When the 1990 season got underway, Auburn had won three consecutive SEC championships, beaten Alabama four years in a row, and knocked off Georgia in six of their previous seven meetings -- yet they were mired in a four-year, three-game losing streak to Florida State and their fans were ravenous to see that course reversed. As a sophomore who hailed from St. Petersburg, Florida, I felt like the most ravenous one of all because many of my high school classmates had gone to FSU, including a select few of my best friends who would not let me live down another Auburn loss.

Jordan-Hare Stadium was packed to the gills long before the evening kickoff. As the sun and temperature dropped, fans shook their pom poms in rhythm while "Sweet Home Alabama" blared repeatedly over the loudspeakers; and when the Tigers finally took the field, the roar was so deafening I swear it surpassed that from the prior year's legendary Iron Bowl.

Auburn jumped ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, then the Noles responded by reeling off 17 unanswered points to take a 17-7 lead into halftime. But the worm turned in the third stanza as Auburn's defense clamped down and its offense regained its legs. After a Jim Von Wyl field goal pulled the Tigers within 17-10, the shift in momentum was palpable.

In the fourth quarter there was an undeniable feeling that Auburn was taking over, and in an attempt to break the momentum, Bobby Bowden called for FSU to run a fumblerooskie. Although that then-legal play ordinarily went for a big gain, in this instance it was snuffed out by nose guard Walter Tate, who saw the ball remain on the turf at the instant of the phantom snap. Tate promptly jumped on it for a turnover, after which AU's offense drove to the end zone and tied it up on a touchdown run by Stacey Danley.

Florida State managed to regroup and get as far as the Auburn 37, where with 1:04 left to play, Bowden opted to go for it on fourth down because he knew his team was outside of the kicker's field goal range. Casey Weldon dropped back to pass only to be met by defensive tackle Ricky Sutton, who exploded through the line and literally threw him for a 22-yard loss.

Auburn proceeded to march to the red zone, with the key play being a third down conversion on which TE Fred Baxter laid out over the middle to make a one-handed catch. On the next-to-last play, QB Stan White intentionally lost a few yards to down the ball in the middle of the field, then Von Wyl came out and kicked a field goal that barely slipped through the left upright to clinch the 20-17 win. The crowd remained in the stands for a long time, doing a mock "tomahawk chop" before heading to Toomer's Corner.

On those three pivotal plays down the stretch (the sack, the catch, and the kick) the noise level in Jordan-Hare was so loud it can not be described. Everyone shook their pom poms so furiously that dust hung visibly in the air. When I blew my nose that night, my snot came out tinged with the dust's blue and orange.


There are interesting subplots to Monday's upcoming championship game.

As it will be the last one of the BCS era, I find myself remembering that Florida State also appeared in the first one of the BCS Era. Its opponent that year, just like its opponent this year, was an SEC team that no one thought of as a contender when the season began.

Both head coaches are young bloods, with a mere five years of head coaching experience between them.

Both programs have executed major turnarounds. Yes, Auburn's resurrection from 3-9 in 2012 to 12-1 in 2013 is more dramatic, but Florida State's emergence from a decade-long trend of losing about four games per year is no small feat.

Both teams have won six straight bowl games, which puts them in a three-way tie for the longest active streak in the country.

If you are into "human interest" stories, Auburn DL Shon Coleman's triumph over cancer is downright Hallmark-worthy.

Also in the "human interest" vein, do not give short shrift to Jameis Winston's composure in the face of heinous things being said about him. It is a noteworthy quality that has not received the amount of appreciation it deserves. We should all remember that no charges were even filed after the accusations were reviewed by a tough-as-nails prosecutor who has put multiple football players behind bars in the past.

None of us knows how Monday's game will play out. It could be a barnburner like two of the ones I described above, or it could be a dud like FSU's 34-6 win in '86. Or it could be something in between, like the contest from '85 that I dubbed "The Heisman Game."

I can think of several reasons to expect a blowout; several to expect a cliffhanger; several to think the Noles will win, and a few to believe my Tigers will win. Maybe I will get into some of those reasons between now and then, and maybe I won't.

What I know is that Auburn and Florida State are natural rivals who share a great deal of common ground, and that each one has a large fan base filled with people who love their school with a passion.

May the best team win. And I hope its colors are blue and orange.

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