For the past several weeks, we have been covering Florida's rivalries. Previous installments Georgia, FSU, Tennessee, LSU, and Miami.
When the SEC ended the annual meetings between Florida and Auburn, the Gators had faced the Tigers as many times as they had played Georgia. The two schools are only 277 miles apart, making Auburn the Gators closest conference rival. (In fact, if a line were drawn to divide the SEC between east and west, Auburn would be in the east.) Auburn is also the Gators oldest rival. When the two teams first met, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was alive, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush were not; the New York Yankees had not won a World Series, and Babe Ruth had not yet taken a Major League at bat.
Auburn University was founded as a Methodist Episcopal college, East Alabama Male College in 1856. By 1892, then called Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, it became the first college in the state of Alabama to admit women. The name of the school would change twice more, in 1899 to Alabama Polytechnic Institute, and in 1960 to Auburn University. Academically, Auburn ranks fifth in the SEC (behind Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) with a US News and World Report rank of 85, and features highly regarded architecture and design programs. Located in the small city of Auburn, the city and university meet at Toomer's Corner (named after the 150 year old Toomer's drug store). AU students have a tradition of toilet papering the two oak trees that grow at the intersection; a tradition that is now in jeopardy thanks to a fan who took a rivalry a little too seriously.
The Tigers first played football in 1892, when they began their rivalry with Georgia. Contrary to popular belief, the university has only one nickname for its athletic teams, the Tigers. None-the-less, they are sometimes referred to as the Plainsmen, which references the same Goldsmith poem that gives them the Tigers nickname. Also, opponents sometimes confuse their "War Eagle" cheer with a nickname.
Whatever you call them, they engender no love among Gator fans. Auburn holds a four game advantage in the series, but it seems (especially lately) that the losses are particularly heartbreaking. The last four meetings have been decided on the last play of the game, with Auburn winning three of them. The Tigers also took heartbreakers from the Gators in 1993 and 1994. And then, there was the curse of Cliff Hare Stadium, where Florida failed to win at Auburn for the 24 year period that their stadium bore that name, including John Reaves record setting nine interception game in 1969.
If you had to put a name on Auburn's animosity towards Florida, it would be "Steven Orr Spurrier." Spurrier's game winning kick against the Tigers propelled him (with Norm Carlson's help) to the 1966 Heisman Trophy, and during his tenure as the Gators coach, the Gators averaged almost 34 points per game to the Tigers 16, while tossing out barbs about the books destroyed in their library fire not being colored yet. In 1985, the Gator defense held Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson to 48 yards rushing en route to a 14-10 win. The next year, an injured Kerwin Bell came off the bench to rally Florida from a 17-0 deficit to an 18-17 victory, and hobbled into the end zone for the game winning two-point conversion.
Florida and Auburn played every year from 1945 to 2002, when the SEC decided that schools would only maintain one cross-divisional opponent. The decision forced Auburn to pick between Florida and Georgia, and in deference to the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" the Bulldogs remained on the Tigers schedule. One of the potential bright spots of the conference expansion was the potential of a divisional realignment that would have brought back this underrated, but exciting rivalry.
This year, Florida will renew its oldest rivalry, and while it will not likely affect either divisional race, if it lives up to the history of the rivalry it will be exciting. In the series 32 of 82 games have been decided by seven points or less (including two ties), not counting the 2006 meeting where a four point game was stretched to ten when a pitch was fumbled on the final play of the game and returned for a touchdown. When the Gators make their way to the Plains this October to face the defending national champions, it could be a make or break game for their season.