Mattingly: Tennessee-Auburn meeting evokes memories

Mattingly: Tennessee-Auburn meeting evokes memories

November 3rd, 2013 By Tom Mattingly in Sports - Columns

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When the Tennessee-Auburn football series resumed in September 1956 after a 17-year hiatus, the games were initially always played on "The Last Saturday in September."

That nomenclature never caught on the way the "Third Saturday in October" did for the Tennessee-Alabama game, but the Tennessee-Auburn game was always a critical game in the race for the SEC title. The games were hotly contested and tested the mettle of players and fans alike on both sides.

The game was important enough to Tennessee coach Bowden Wyatt that he turned down a chance to play Auburn in the 1955 Gator Bowl, not wanting the Tigers to have an advance look at the Volunteers' famed single-wing offense before the opening game of the 1956 season.

For their part, the Auburn folks were never enamored with playing their "home games" against Tennessee at Legion Field in Birmingham, more than a considerable distance from campus. The issue began to come to a head in May 1970, when the Tigers petitioned to play that year's game at Auburn after artificial turf was installed at Legion Field in Birmingham.

That didn't happen, but the Vols did show up at Cliff Hare Stadium for the first time on Sept. 28, 1974, and took a 21-0 beating for their trouble.

Tigers loyalist David Housel (author of the "The Auburn Football Vault") referred to that game as one of coach Ralph (Shug) Jordan's "last great victories."

"The Tennessee game was especially meaningful," Housel wrote. "The Vols did everything they could to keep from playing in Auburn. They agreed to play in Knoxville and Birmingham, but not at Auburn. Auburn fans couldn't understand that logic."

Since Auburn had won six of the nine games played in Birmingham from 1956 to 1972, it couldn't possibly have been any harder to play at Auburn than at Legion Field, but the old habits definitely died hard on the Tennessee side.

The 1976 and 1978 games were played in Birmingham, before Tennessee came to Auburn for good in 1980.

Tennessee won the lidlifter at Legion Field in 1956, dominating the Tigers 35-7. Two years later, Tennessee failed to make a first down, losing 13-0 on an NBC telecast.

No. 3 Auburn lost a 3-0 decision in the 1959 matchup. Cotton Letner's field goal in the second quarter at the north end stood up for a Tennessee win on an abysmally hot day at Shields-Watkins Field.

In 1965, the teams battled to a 13-13 tie, as Tigers defensive tackle Jack Thornton intercepted two passes. That's something that happens infrequently. Tennessee started its ascent to SEC titlse in 1967 and 1969 with wins over Auburn at Neyland Stadium. There were also memorable games in the rain in 1957, 1973 and 1989, with Auburn winning the first contest and Tennessee the other two.

In 1979, Gary Moore returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a score, and the Jimmy Streater-led Vols, wearing all orange that day, won 35-17.

Tennessee spoiled the dedication ceremonies for an expanded and newly named Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1980, winning 42-0, helping signal the demise of Tigers coach Doug Barfield.

Tennessee knocked off No. 1 Auburn in the second game of the 1985 season, steamrolling the Tigers 38-20.

Two other controversial tie games also characterized the series. Tennessee chose to kick an extra point in the 1987 game late in the fourth quarter, as did Auburn in the 1990 contest, firing up both fan bases with the controversial strategy.

The teams played fewer and fewer times once the SEC split into divisions in 1992, playing only six times in regular seasons -- 1997-98, 2003-04 and 2008-09 -- and twice in the SEC title game, with each team winning once.

This year's game comes 45 years to the day of the 1968 meeting at in Birmingham.

In the second half of a day-night doubleheader (Alabama and LSU played that afternoon), an unranked Auburn squad upset the No. 5 Vols 28-14 on the soggy turf at the venue once billed as the "Football Capital of the South."

That loss cost Tennessee a chance to win a second consecutive SEC title.

The Vols won at Auburn again in the national championship season of 1998, when the Vols rebuffed the Tigers in the shadow of the Tennessee end zone on four successive plays and gratefully escaped with a 17-9 victory.

It may seems strange for the two teams to be playing in November, given the history of the series, but this is the SEC of the 2000s when teams play at all hours of the day or night, tradition and heritage be damned, thanks to the pernicious monster called network television.

That's just the way it is these days, but there's no doubting that this game will draw a capacity crowd to Neyland Stadium for a noon kickoff and likely will go deep into the fourth quarter before the outcome is settled.