Pat Dye took over the Auburn program in 1981, when Alabama’s Bear Bryant ruled the state, the SEC and was larger than life in the nation itself, including a recent run of national championships in 1978-79. Dye went 5-6 his first year, but improved to 8-3-1 a year later and was establishing his program as a legitimate challenger. 1983 Auburn football was the breakthrough year for the Dye era and made a case for the national championship.
Auburn had a sophomore running back by the name of Bo Jackson and he ran for over 1,200 yards and got All-American recognition, paving the way for a Heisman Trophy by his senior year.
The running game didn’t stop with Bo. Lionel James was shifty and explosive, running for 728 yards. Tommie Agee provided the muscle, and he pounded out over 600 more yards. There wasn’t much of a passing game—Randy Campbell only threw for 873 yards, but he at least avoided mistakes, with just three interceptions all season.
Auburn’s growing respect nationally was seen in their #5 preseason ranking, and the Tigers beat a decent Southern Miss team 24-3 to start the year. They hosted third-ranked Texas after that, but the Longhorns outstanding defense stifled Auburn in a 20-7 loss. Texas would go on to an undefeated season. Auburn temporarily slipped out of the Top 10.
The Tigers didn’t allow a hangover to carry over though in a road trip to Tennessee a week later. The Vols were good, ultimately winning eight games and their dominant defensive tackle Reggie White would win SEC Player of the Year. It didn’t stop Auburn from ringing up a 37-14 blowout.
The schedule didn’t get a whole lot easier with a home date against Florida State, ranked #17 at the time, though the Seminoles would only finish 6-5. Auburn trailed 24-20 late in the game before Campbell threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to James with just under two minutes to play. Linebacker Greg Carr then came up with an interception to secure the 27-24 win.
Kentucky had a nice team, but Auburn went to Lexington and rolled the Wildcats 49-21 and moved back to #5. The Tigers beat two bad teams in Georgia Tech and Mississippi State to nudge to #4. It was time for the most demanding stretch of what had already been a demanding season.
Auburn was in a tough fight with Georgia and Florida for the SEC title, with all three teams being unbeaten in league play and Alabama just a game back. The Tigers would play the Gators and Bulldogs over the next three weeks and sandwiched in between was a non-conference game against seventh-ranked Maryland, with Boomer Esiason behind center.
Florida had the conference’s best passing quarterback in Wayne Peace. Bo and Peace provided the contrast in styles and each played well in an excellent football game. Jackson ripped off touchdown runs of 55 & 80 yards, piling up 196 yards on the day as Auburn built up a 28-7 third-quarter lead. Peace threw for 336 yards and led a rally that closed the gap to 28-21.
The Gators also had two future NFL running backs in Neal Anderson and John L. Williams, both starters on good teams in the pros. But Anderson lost a key fumble near the goal line in this game to help dig the early hole and when Auburn covered an onside kick with 2:54 left, they were able to close out the win.
A 35-23 win over Esiason’s Terps solidified Auburn’s position at #3 in the polls. They and Georgia were the only teams with perfect SEC records and they would meet in a 3 vs. 4 game in Athens on November 12. In a tough defensive fight, Auburn won 13-7 and clinched a tie for the conference championship. They got a sweet win over Alabama, 23-20, in Bryant’s final season to wrap up the SEC outright.
Auburn was ranked #3 in the country. Theoretically there was a path to the national championship, with #2 Texas and #1 Nebraska in different bowls, the Cotton and Orange. But both the Longhorns and Cornhuskers were heavy favorites, so the Tigers’ chances weren’t a serious part of the national conversation.
Auburn also drew Michigan as its opponent. While the Wolverines were a good 9-2 team, the fact they weren’t in the Rose Bowl tells you this wasn’t a vintage Bo Schembecler team.
But by the time the Sugar Bowl kicked off in prime-time, everyone knew that Texas had lost. As the game unfolded, everyone knew that fifth-ranked Miami had Nebraska in a fight for its life. Auburn was in the mix for a national championship.
The game was a defensive war. The Wolverines put up a touchdown midway through the first quarter, but would not score again. Penalties dogged Michigan the rest of the night, and Auburn slowly chipped their way back. Very slowly.
A Tiger field goal with 6:17 left in the third quarter got them on the board and another one cut the lead to 7-6 with nine minutes left. Auburn made its own share of mistake, from three turnovers, to bad pitchouts that lost yardage and denied Jackson the chance to make plays.
Finally, the Tigers reached the two-yard line with less than a minute left and kicker Al Del Greco booted a 19-yard field goal. Auburn won 9-7.
When Miami completed its stunning 31-30 upset of Nebraska, it should have opened the door for Auburn to be #1. The Tigers had beaten eight bowl teams. The Hurricanes had beaten two. While Miami’s bowl win had been drastically more impressive, there was no comparison between the overall body of work between these two teams.
But the sizzle of what happened the night of January 2 trumped the steak that was Auburn’s season-long performance. They settled for being #2. Auburn has had its share of frustrations in their pursuit of the national title that wouldn’t be fulfilled until 2010. Those frustrations range from going undefeated and uncrowned in 2004 to being undefeated and on probation in 1994. The fact they got robbed in 1983 is often overlooked.