When I started covering the Gators regularly in 1979 it didn’t take long to realize that Florida/Auburn was something special. It was a rivalry that brought out the best and worst in both schools and their fans. While off the field it got pretty nasty in the early eighties, on the field it was fierce stuff.
When the annual rivalry ended in 2002 to accommodate the SEC changing its inter-divisional scheduling it was a great loss. The closest SEC school to Gainesville geographically ought to be on the Gators’ schedule each year.
I understand why Florida lost Auburn as an annual opponent. When the SEC voted to go to a 5-1-2 format (five division games, one inter-divisional annual rival and two rotating opponents) it mandated that each school have just one annual opponent in the other division. Alabama/Tennessee was a given, but both Florida and Georgia wanted Auburn. Auburn wanted to keep both annual opponents, too but that wasn’t an option. Since Florida had a budding annual rivalry with LSU it made more sense for the Gators to face those Tigers each year.
Still, this is a game that ought to be played. Florida and Auburn are not only close geographically; they are schools that truly in college towns. And they both wear Orange and Blue.
So Many Games That Stand Out
I wrote about Florida/Auburn games of note in this month’s Fightin’ Gator Magazine, but only had space to touch on a few. I also report for Sun Sports this Friday and Saturday on the lost rivalry between the schools, but that just scratches the surface, too. Still I urge you to check those piece out in addition to this column to fully appreciate what this series used to mean.
When I think of this rivalry I remember Charley Pell accusing the officials of being biased after a devastating loss in ’83. I remember the Gators losing on a bum call in ’81 when Tony Lilly caught a fumble in the air (you couldn’t pick them up and run back then) and raced for a touchdown only to have it disallowed. The following year, Florida rallied past Auburn, helped by a similarly bizarre call that gave Florida the recovery of an on-sides kick when only Auburn players were at the bottom of the pile. I remember Florida’s “Great Wall” pounding Auburn’s defense into the turf at Florida Field in 1984. I’ll never forget being on the field for one of the most physical games ever in 1985 when Ray McDonald Junior’s dad caught two touchdown passes and the Gators moved up to number one.
1986, the Everlasting Memory
Those five games were just the warm up act for one of the most stirring, emotional rallies in UF history. The 1986 season was perhaps more bizarre and unpredictable as any Florida has had. Florida’s depth was virtually non-existent at the NCAA sanctions that took effect in ’85 had their greatest impact. The Gators could play with anyone, but couldn’t make the plays they need to make in the fourth quarter to beat better teams…. Or so it seemed.
The Gators took a 3-and-4 record into Florida field to face the 5th ranked Tigers without quarterback Kerwin Bell who had a sprained knee. Rodney Brewer was ineffective and Florida turned to “The Throwin’ Mayoan” but the Gators were still down 17-nothing entering the fourth quarter. Florida got a touchdown and then Robert McGinty, who transferred to UF from Auburn nailed a 51-yard field goal and it was 17-10. The Gators got the ball back with about seven minutes to play and gradually drove down the field until Bell hit Ricky Nattiel with a five yard TD pass to make it 17-16.
Kerwin Remembers the Two-Point Conversion
Kerwin Bell: “It was a big surprise to me that we were going for two. We worked so hard to get down there and getting’ the touchdown gave us a chance to tie, that’s what I was thinking. We called time out to think about it, and when I got over there Coach (Galen) Hall said we’re going to for and I was as surprised as anybody. But after I thought about it, I thought yeah, this is a chance for us to complete the comeback and win this thing.”
“When I went out there the play was to get the ball to Ricky (Nattiel) because he was really hot then. He was getting open and we had an option route for him to run and get open on. When I got the snap I looked to him and they had him kind of bracketed with two guys and I started to feel some pressure. I had to do what I usually don’t like to do which is run. So I started running and when I did I felt like I could get there. I backed off a little bit. People sorta thought I was slow (he was!) but I just wanted to get everybody excited in the stands. But I made it across and it was a great feeling.”
“It was something like when you’re growing up in the backyard and playing with your friends and you pretend you’re in those kinds of games where you have a chance to win at the end in the last seconds. It really kind of defined my career. Everywhere I go Gator fans come up to me and say, ‘ I remember that game against Auburn’. Of all the games I ever played in it seems like that’s the only game people remember. But it’s a great way to define my career; I’ve had a great time with it and it was a great day to be a Gator.”
Just for the record, Kerwin played in a lot of other games and played very well. He left the Gators as the all-time leader in passing yards (7,585) and touchdowns (56). He ranks fifth and sixth in those categories to this day.
No Way To Make It Happen
While it would be great to see Florida/Auburn resume as an annual rivalry, I don’t see how it can happen. The Gators schedule is tough enough with Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and FSU every year and adding Auburn would have to remove one of those teams from the equation. Perhaps the Gators and Georgia Bulldawgs could take turns with Auburn and LSU on alternate decades but I don’t see that as a realistic option.
Someone once suggested moving Vandy to the West and Auburn to the East, but that would destroy the competitive balance of the conference.
Maybe expansion could bring Auburn to the East and add Texas and Oklahoma (or Texas A&M) to the west? Don’t laugh, that was discussed back in 1992 when the SEC expanded. Talk about a super conference!
No, Florida/Auburn will have to remain a great piece of Gator (and Tiger) history. So savor these games the next two years. Something special is bound to happen.