Little hope for the Florida-Auburn rivalry

When the SEC announced it was sticking with an eight-game schedule, one obvious explanation was to protect historic rivalries such as Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia.

But the 6-1-1 format that designates one permanent and one rotating opponent in the opposite division means that some rivalries with plenty of history didn't make the cut.

"The disappointing part of that, to me, growing up in this league, is not being able to see the Florida-Auburn game continue on a regular basis," Florida head coach Will Muschamp said. "... You look at Tennessee and Auburn, they don't hardly ever play any more because of the scheduling.

"There's no perfect answer to please everybody."

The league on Monday announced its rotating cross-division schedule through 2025, and Auburn-Florida isn't slated to resume until 2019 in Gainesville and at Auburn in 2024.

Maybe it lacked a catchy nickname, but Auburn-Florida was one of the South's traditional rivalries. It began in 1912 and was played for 58 consecutive years (1945-2002) before the SEC moved to the rotating schedule format.

"My first year we were down in Destin [Florida] and they were talking about moving forward with the scheduling. I was sitting with coach [Steve] Spurrier and he looked at me and said, 'Florida and Auburn won't play but every six years? That's not good for the SEC,' " said Muschamp, who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Auburn.

"… You look at some of the games, and having been involved in both sides of that rivalry, I understand the importance of that."

With a little help from Muschamp's memory of the series, Greg Ostendorf and Jeff Barlis take a look at some of the more memorable games in recent years.

Barlis: The 1993 game was a coveted ticket, because Auburn's NCAA probation resulted in a one-year ban from television and because both teams were ranked and unbeaten. No. 4 Florida was coming off a 58-3 victory at LSU, the Bayou Bengals' worst loss in 100 years of football. No. 19 Auburn, in coach Terry Bowden's first season, didn't have many believers.

The Gators offense rolled behind freshman quarterback Danny Wuerffel and tailback Errict Rhett. From Auburn's 4-yard line, Florida was poised to break a 10-0 game open when Wuerffel threw an interception that Calvin Jackson returned 96 yards for a touchdown. It was a roller-coaster game. Wuerffel finished with 386 yards passing, Rhett 196 yards rushing, but the Tigers' defense kept coming up with sacks and picks. Auburn kicker Scott Etheridge nailed a 41-yard field goal with 1:21 left to seal a 38-35 upset.

In their next meeting, the stakes were higher -- Florida had the No. 1 ranking and Auburn had a 17-game winning streak. Florida QB Terry Dean threw four interceptions before giving way to Wuerffel, who threw three touchdown passes. Again, the Tigers defense had an answer, as Brian Robinson picked off Wuerffel with just enough time for the offense to score a game-winning TD.

The enduring image for Auburn, a 17-point underdog that day, was of defensive tackle Gary Walker staring into a TV camera just after the game ended. "Give us our respect!" he screamed, and that 36-33 upset might have finally earned it.

The Gators got their revenge the following season.

"I was a GA [at Auburn] in '95," Muschamp recalled. "Coach Spurrier hung about 40-something on us, and I think he was being nice."

The final score in 1995 was Florida 49, Auburn 38. It was as riveting a three-year stretch of games as any rivalry could produce.

Now it's on life support.

Ostendorf: I’m going to go a little more recent and look at the games in 2006 and 2007. Muschamp was Auburn’s defensive coordinator at the time, and he seemed like the only one in the SEC who could figure out how to stop Florida’s young quarterback, Tim Tebow.

In 2006, Tebow and Chris Leak split duties behind center and formed a nearly unbeatable duo. In fact, the Gators won every other game that season, including the BCS national championship, but the lone slip-up came at Jordan-Hare Stadium in early October.

At halftime, Florida led 17-11. Leak had already thrown for one touchdown and Tebow had run for another, but Auburn’s defense stepped up in the second half. They shut out the Gators, and the exclamation point came on the final play of the game, when Patrick Lee recovered a fumble and took it 25 yards to the house. Muschamp’s defense forced three turnovers in the second half as the Tigers upset No. 2 Florida 27-17.

The next year, Florida entered the game undefeated and ranked No. 4 nationally. Its last loss came on the Plains the year before, and the Gators were out to avenge it in the Swamp. However, the Auburn defense was again up to the challenge, and the Tigers took a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter.

But they couldn’t hold Tebow down forever. The eventual Heisman Trophy winner engineered back-to-back scoring drives to tie the game, and when he got the ball again late in the game, it looked as if Florida would complete the comeback. Instead, Auburn forced a three-and-out, got the ball back and set up Wes Byrum for a game-winning 43-yard field goal as time expired.

“Two fabulous games,” Muschamp said looking back. “[2007] came down to a field-goal kick here in the Swamp, and we won the game and didn’t score an offensive touchdown up there in ’06.

"Again, there have been some fantastic games. It’s two storied programs. But regardless of how anyone looks at it, any decision that was made on the scheduling, somebody was going to be upset."