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Iron Bowl Upsets: Fact or Fiction?

The general refrain that we hear this time of year is that when the Iron Bowl rolls around, anything can happen and you can effectively throw out the record books. But is there any real underlying truth to that general notion, or is it really a falsity that people accept just because it is so commonly repeated?

Truth be told, the notion that anything can happen in the Iron Bowl and that the records should be thrown out is simply not true. Lots of people may say it, but that doesn't make it true. And far to the contrary, in fact, a close look at the historical record reveals that this rivalry is almost immune from true upsets, and that the best team almost always wins.  Let's take a closer look.

From the outset, seriously, how many legitimate major upsets have we seen in this rivalry the past several decades? I mean true upsets where one team was significantly better than the other but yet somehow managed to find a way to lose. How many?

The only one I can really think of was in 1984. That was Ray Perkins' second year at the Capstone, and it went poorly. Injuries hit us hard that year, we were young and inexperienced at the quarterback position, and we weren't a particularly talented team at any rate, so we staggered into the Iron Bowl with a meager 4-6 record. We started off the year 1-4, and it was our first losing season since 1957. Auburn, on the other hand, came in led by Bo Jackson and needing just one more win to earn a berth in the Sugar Bowl. 'Bama played them close, though, and thanks to three key Auburn miscues in the fourth quarter -- (1) a dumb decision by Dye not to kick a glorified extra point trailing by two, (2) a blown assignment by Bo Jackson on the fourth down play, i.e. Wrong Way Bo, and (3) a missed Auburn field goal at the end of the game -- the Tide somehow pulled off the upset, 17-15.

Wrong Way, Bo.

But, that's the only true upset that I can think of. Many people will surely point to other years, like 2001, or 1989, or 1972, but a closer examination reveals that games like that weren't exactly earth-shattering upsets as much as they were close, hard-fought contests between teams that were much more similar in terms of quality than anyone really gave them credit for.

Take 2001, for example. Alabama came into Jordan Hare with a 4-5 record as a major underdog, where as Auburn came in 7-2 looking to stamp a ticket to Atlanta. But, hindsight 20 / 20, the teams were really quite comparable. Alabama had lost several close games in last minute meltdowns, while Auburn had pulled out three victories in games that literally went down to the final play (two game-winning field goals and a third by a goal line stand). Besides, Auburn's two losses came in blowout fashion, by a combined 42 points at the hands of Syracuse and Arkansas. Meanwhile, Alabama had turned the corner somewhat the previous week against Mississippi State, while Auburn was about to embark on an absolute implosion down the stretch. It may have been considered an upset at the time, but in hindsight the teams were really of remarkable similar quality.

Likewise was the case in 1989, too. That game will live forever in Auburn lore, and in many ways for good reason, but a major upset it was not. Yes Alabama did come into the game 10-0 in the thick of the national championship race, but it wasn't as if it Auburn was a pushover. Far from it, in fact, Auburn had a fine team in their own right. They had beaten Alabama the past three years, had won at least a share of the SEC Championship the past two years, and came into that game with an 8-2 record with a senior quarterback on their way to yet another New Year's Day bowl victory. Again, technically an upset? Yes, but in reality the teams were really very close even on paper.

1972 really fits that same bill as well. As memorable as the infamous Punt 'Bama Punt disaster was, on paper it was a match-up of two very good teams. Again, Auburn was no pushover. Admittedly, 'Bama came into Legion Field that day with a 10-0 record, but Auburn came in at 8-1 fresh off a blowout victory over Georgia. Both were fine teams in their own right, and while the manner of victory was certainly shocking, again the teams were really very comparable.

Again, when you are looking for true upsets in this series -- where one team is significantly better than the other but still ends up on the losing end -- you find that they are remarkably rare in this series. On the other hand, even in years where one team is significantly better than the other, you also find that true blowouts are fairly rare too. Not quite as rare as legitimate upsets, mind you, but still largely aberrations in their own right.

In reality, what we tend to see is that when one team is significantly better than the other, the inferior team somehow fights tooth and nail and makes the game competitive, but eventually the superior team takes over down the stretch and earns a hard-fought victory. For example, that was the case in the following games:

  • 2004, when Auburn came in undefeated and Alabama came in 6-4 and decimated by injuries. Nevertheless, third string quarterback and all, 'Bama carried a 6-0 lead into the third quarter, but ultimately Auburn pulled away for a 21-13 victory.
  • 2000, when Auburn came in as SEC West champions and Alabama came in 3-7 with a coach who had already cleared out of his office. It was an ugly affair, but 'Bama kept it close at 9-0.
  • 1999, when Alabama went to Auburn on the way to an SEC Championship, and the 5-5 Tigers carried a lead into the fourth quarter. From there, though, Kindal Moorehead made a huge defensive play and Shaun Alexander took over.
  • 1997, when Auburn came in playing for a spot in Atlanta, while Alabama had crashed and burned to a losing season in Mike Dubose's debut campaign. Nevertheless, we carried the lead into the final minute and looked to have the game in hand before Ed Scissum's fumble.Auburn capitalized on the fumble, though, and won with a last-minute field goal.
  • 1992, when Alabama came in undefeated and on the way to a national championship, while Auburn had crashed and burned and Pat Dye had resigned. Even so, Auburn fought to a 0-0 tie, and were threatening to score in the third quarter before Antonio Langham intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. 'Bama slowly pulled away to win 17-0.
  • 1991, when Alabama was on the way to an 11-1 year and Auburn ended up 5-6. Even so, it was a close game that Alabama won late, 13-6, thanks to a monstrous punt by Tank Williamson and a great run by freshman sensation David Palmer.

On the whole, when taking a close look at the historical record, we tend to see a lot of those games. It is relatively rare for both Alabama and Auburn to be on top at the same time -- games like we saw in 1994 and 1971 are exceptions to the rule -- and most of the time one team comes in better than the other. And, usually, the better team finds a way to win. True upsets are extremely rare, and blowouts are quite rare in their own right, too, but usually the better team does in the end find a way to win. Anything can happen in any one game, of course, but nevertheless that is generally the case.

So, fact or fiction? A close look at the historical record shows us that the notion that you can throw out the record books in the entire bowl is generally fiction. The games may be hard-fought, competitive contests, but the best team almost always wins in this series, and true upsets are very rare. Let's hope that trend continues on Friday.