For all the strangeness of 2020, playing Auburn in the Sanford Stadium opener ranks at the top of the list. Decade after decade, it was the Deep South’s oldest rivalry in November, the Bulldogs and the Tigers, almost always with major stakes on the line. Even if it isn’t a season when one or both were vying for a shot at the Southeastern Conference championship, major bowls or high national rankings, Georgia and Auburn is always big.
The proximity of these ancient rivals has a lot to do with it.
Auburn’s campus, in the loveliest village on the Plains of eastern Alabama, is right at 150 miles away from the majestic tree-lined rolling hills of Athens. Just across the Georgia-Alabama state line, Auburn is only 44 miles from LaGrange and 36 from Columbus.
They are on the doorstep.
That’s led to well over a century’s worth of fierce and relentless recruiting battles between the Bulldogs and Tigers – especially in the fertile grounds west of Atlanta and in the southwest corner of the Peach State.
Often times, recruiting battles cause as much of the intensity, passion, vitriol and vigor of classic rivalries as do the gridiron clashes. Especially, if one of those coveted prospects makes the big play and delivers another chapter of joy to one side and heartbreak for the other.
From 1980-82, Georgia clinched all three of its successive SEC titles with memorable victories over the Tigers – especially when the Dawgs hunkered down and sugar fell from the sky on the plains in ‘82.
Then came so much heartache against the Tigers.
From 1983 through 1990, Auburn beat Georgia seven of eight times. The Bulldogs lone win coming “between the hoses” on the Plains in 1986, with Steve Boswell sealing the 20-16 victory on a game-saving interception.
The loss in 1983, in a matchup of No. 3 vs. No. 4 was a stinger, right there with 1942, when Georgia was No. 1 and 1971 when both were undefeated, as kicks in the gut. Auburn’s wins in 1987 and 1988 cost the Bulldogs a share of the SEC title. During that run of seven of eight for the Tigers, they did it with a lot of Georgia guys, particularly on the line of scrimmage. Steve Wallace, David and Tracy Rocker, Nate Hill, Benji Roland…all big time linemen, all hailed from Georgia.
If there is one position where Auburn has reeled in its biggest fish from the Peach State, it would be running back. William Andrews, James Brooks, the “Little Train” Lionel James, Ronnie Brown, all Peach State superb runners. Perhaps the best player of all that Auburn beat the Bulldogs in recruiting for, linebacker Takeo Spikes.
All of these aforementioned Auburn greats firmly planted their flags in Athens. From 1977 through 2001, Georgia beat the Tigers twice in Sanford Stadium, the SEC champions of 1981 and again in 1991, while Auburn won 11 times between the hedges.
After this kind of stretch, it was hard to imagine Georgia going on an impressive run against the Tigers. Especially after Auburn added a couple to the hit list with top ten matchup wins over Georgia in 2004 and 2005, the latter between the hedges an all-time hurt. Like the Johnny Cash cover. Following the fourth-and-13 connection, strip, recovery, clock drain and field goal of 2005, Auburn led the all-time series 53-48-8.
The following season on the Plains, 6-4 Georgia upset fifth-ranked Auburn 37-15 and things started going the Bulldogs way.
Georgia has won 12 of the last 15 games in the series, and now leads the series 60-56-8. During that 1-7 stretch in the back half of the ‘80s, that would have been hard to envision.
Of Auburn’s three wins over the period dating back to 2006, the Tigers won in 2010 en route to the national championship and had “The Prayer at Jordan Hare” in 2013 that delivered an SEC title and nearly another big enchilada. Auburn won big against the Bulldogs 40-17 in 2017. There would be a rematch in Atlanta, though, with Georgia prevailing 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game and securing a College Football Playoff and Rose Bowl berth. The Bulldogs won 27-10 in Athens in 2018, and hung on last year 21-14 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn’s best defensive player the last three years, Derrick Brown, is from metro Atlanta.
Georgia lost nine straight to Tennessee from 1989-1999 (the two didn’t play in 1990 and 1991). The Volunteers then led the series 17-10-2. Georgia won eight of ten in the 2010’s over the Vols, and the Bulldogs now lead the series 24-23-2. You may also be familiar with Florida’s success in Jacksonville against the Dogs beginning with Steve Spurrier’s arrival as the Gators head coach in 1990. Yes, Florida won 18 of 21 meetings from 1990-2010. All time ouch stuff.
Well, Georgia has won six of the last nine, and won the decade against the Gators 6-4. That includes the current three-game winning streak under Kirby Smart’s watch. The Bulldogs now lead the Florida series 53-43-2.
Throw in winning 16 of the last 19 against Tech, and Georgia heads into the 2020s riding three game winning streaks and leading the all-time series against Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and the Yellow Jackets.
That’s a tremendous source of pride for the Georgia people.
As long as football is played in the Southeastern Conference, Georgia and Auburn will battle it out on the gridiron, vying for victory, and in living rooms, pining for prospects.
It’s going to be odd not playing in cold November temperatures this year. When the new schedule model was announced, and Georgia-Auburn was moved from November to get more league division games in the final month of the regular season, it was a huge blow to tradition. Now, instead of being the second to last game of the year, as it was for both so many times from the 1950s into the 21st century, it will be the second game of the season.
Things change, but the greatness of this rivalry is a backbone and cornerstone to the league and college football in this region. After all, these two got it all started back in 1892, with what was certainly the “earliest” kickoff, February the 20th.
It’s only fitting that Georgia and Auburn should’ve started in that month, since so many February signatures have set the table and piqued the passion of the Deep South’s oldest rivalry.