This is Part One of a five-part series counting down the greatest Iron Bowls of all-time. This year’s game will be played Saturday, November 29th, 2008. The titles for each game are taken from Bill Cromartie’s Braggin’ Rights, the authority on every Iron Bowl ever played.
Nov. 27th, 1971 – Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
Alabama 31 Auburn 7
This game must be included on the list, not because the actual on-the-field show was amazingly spectacular, but because it is the only time in history both schools entered the matchup undefeated, untied, unblemished. The fight held national championship implications for both teams. It’s a game often forgotten or overlooked, all these years later, but the days, weeks, months leading up to it were filled with a psychotic level of hype that may never be matched.
Bear Bryant’s team entered the 1971 Iron Bowl with familiar reputation, 10-0 and ranked #2 in the country, but Auburn was considered by many to be the possible chink in Alabama’s armor. The Tigers ripped through their schedule that year, led by the arm of quarterback Pat Sullivan and the hands of receiver Terry Beasley. “Sullivan to Beasley” became a national phrase, and when Auburn boarded the bus to Birmingham to meet ‘Bama, the team from Lee County was 9-0 and ranked #5 in America.
Two weeks dragged by after Nov. 13, a day on which the Tigers whipped Georgia, 35-20, and The Tide bludgeoned Miami, 31-3. Families and friends in the state waded through Thanksgiving meals with anticipation for the Big Game. On Thanksgiving night, two evenings before the Iron Bowl, Sullivan was awarded with the sport’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy, and his label as the country’s best player spiced up the ’71 rivalry contest even more. It is the only time the game has featured an already-crowned Heisman winner (AU back Bo Jackson captured the award AFTER the Iron Bowl in 1985).
When the teams finally took the field on gameday, the packed crowd at Legion Field exploded, and “the eruption caused Vulcan, Birmingham’s great steel statue, to turn his head…”* (Cromartie 226). The world was finally about to see Auburn’s unstoppable offense meet ‘Bama’s immovable defense. Great defense usually beats great offense, and this game would follow that rule.
The tone was established on the very first drive. Auburn won the coin toss, and giddily chose to receive. Alabama’s D suffocated Sullivan, Beasley, and every other Tiger, and fourth down arrived quickly. A low snap to AU booter Dave Beverly allowed the maniacal ‘Bama defense to knock the punter to the ground before getting a chance to kick the ball. With such great field position on the Auburn 22-yard line, the Alabama offense reached the endzone fairly easily. After moving the ball down to the 8-yard line, quarterback Terry Davis scrambled in for the game’s first score. Three minutes into the most anticipated Iron Bowl, and ‘Bama was up, 7-0.
Auburn managed a little more on its next drive, but was again forced to punt. Alabama trucked all the way back into the endzone to extend its lead to 14-0 before the first quarter was even over. The Tigers did not give up right away, though, and reached Alabama territory on a 40-yard Sullivan-to-Beasley pass. But Sullivan coughed up the ball on the next play, and The Tide recovered. AU got a second chance almost immediately, however, when UA halfback Ellis Beck put the ball on the dirt, and a Tiger defender fell on it at the Alabama 31-yard line. Head coach Shug Jordan reached into his trick bag on the very next play when Sullivan handed the ball off to back Harry Unger who stopped and tossed it to Beasley for a touchdown.
With plenty of time left to play in the first half, ‘Bama’s lead had been cut to seven.
Both defenses held for the rest of the half, but Alabama managed a drive late and found itself inside Auburn’s 10-yard line with 5 seconds remaining before the break. But kicker Bill Davis, quarterback Terry’s brother, missed a short field goal, and the score remained 14-7, Alabama ahead, when the teams trotted toward the locker rooms.
Defense dominated early in the second half, and neither team scored a point in the third quarter. Alabama finally made some ground behind the smashmouth running of Musso, and gave place kicker Davis an opportunity to make up for his missed field goal earlier in the game. He capitalized on the 41-yard kick, and ‘Bama was up 17-7 early in the fourth quarter.
Tide defender Chuck Strickland stole a Sullivan pass in the air on the first play of the Tigers’ next drive, setting up a short distance for UA’s offense to get back into the endzone for the first time since the first quarter. Musso busted a 12-yard touchdown run on the first play of the possession, and Davis added the extra point, extending Alabama’s lead to 24-7. The magic of Auburn’s season had expired, and fans donning orange and blue began filing out of the stadium.
Auburn was again unable to get much going on its next drive, and had to punt. Alabama marched down to the Tigers’ three, but Musso fumbled for only the third time in his career, giving Auburn an outside shot at coming back. Sullivan was again picked off, however, this time by Jeff Rouzie, who raced down to the Tigers’ five. Musso redeemed himself, and scored on the next play. Davis’s point-after made it 31-7, which would be the final score.
The national title implications of the game proved to be irrelevant, as both teams were blasted in their January bowl games. Top-ranked and eventual champion Nebraska tore The Tide apart in the Orange Bowl, 38-6, and Oklahoma belted the Tigers, 40-22, in the Sugar Bowl.
However, as tough as it is for both teams in the State of Alabama to win all games on their schedules in the tough SEC, it happened in 1971, and that Iron Bowl is one-of-a-kind.
*Cromartie, Bill. Braggin’ Rights: Alabama vs. Auburn. Gridiron Publishers: Atlanta, GA, 1993.