There's always been a little bit of the Boston Red Sox in the Auburn Tigers.
No matter how good the Red Sox were over the years they labored in the perpetual shadow of the New York Yankees. While the hated "pinstripers" won titles, Boston learned heartache and hope as their team usually fell just short.
No matter how good the Auburn Tigers were over the years, they competed against the ghosts of the Alabama Crimson Tide. While Alabama's claim of 13 titles is absurd and open to legitimate debate, the Tide are still historically the stronger program. When you're looking at the sum total of college football history, Bama stands apart.
The Red Sox boast some of the greatest individual players in the history of baseball. Ted Williams, Carl Yazstremski, Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk called Fenway home. None were able to bring Boston a World Series title.
Some of college football's greatest names wore the Tiger orange and blue. Heisman winners Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson, Lombardi winner Tracy Rocker and Outland winner Carlos Rogers all played at Jordan-Hare Stadium. None could bring the National Championship to the Plains.
Until 2004, the Boston streak of title-free seasons stretched back to 1918, something their Yankee counterparts were all too eager to point out.
Until 2010, Auburn's string without a national title extended back to 1957, a void Alabama fans gleefully noted at every opportunity.
There were ample opportunities for both to break the curse.
In 1986 the Red Sox had the World Series all but won until Bill Buckner flubbed a routine grounder to first.
In 1975, Boston owned a 3-2 Series lead over Cincinnati before losing Game Six in 12 innings and then giving up the Series winning run in the ninth inning of Game Seven.
The St. Louis Cardinals clipped the Sox in seven games in 1967.
Auburn posted an 11-1 record in 1983. On New Year's Day the Tigers were the only team in the top three to win when they edged Michigan 9-7. Top ranked Nebraska lost to Miami on a failed two-point try and number two Texas was defeated by a Georgia team which Auburn had beaten in November.
Instead of the expected coronation however, Auburn finished third. The Hurricanes vaulted from five to one and Nebraska slid to two.
In 1988, Auburn lost 7-6 to LSU when Bengal quarterback Tommy Hodson converted a fourth and goal pass for a score with 1:47 left. Auburn didn't lose again until the Sugar Bowl, but the loss kept the Tigers out of a national title match against Notre Dame.
In 1993, Auburn finished unbeaten at 11-0 but were locked out of the bowls—and national championship consideration—by probation.
In 2004, Auburn finished undefeated but couldn't break past either Oklahoma or USC which were ranked first and second in the pre-season and finished the regular season without a loss.
For the Red Sox, the drought ended in 2004. For the Tigers, the long wait was over in 2010. The similarities between the two were striking.
The Red Sox were led on the field by the effervescent Manny Ramirez, a man child of prodigious talent who played the game as if it were designed to amuse him. He batted .308 and led the league in home runs and slugging percentage.
Playing the Ramirez role for the Auburn Tigers was Cam Newton. The junior college transfer played with unbridled joy and almost childlike wonder. He led the SEC in rushing as a quarterback and was among the national leaders in passing efficiency.
David Ortiz was a mammoth presence at the plate. A teddy bear with a mean streak, "Big Papi" crushed more than 40 home runs. He put the Red Sox on his back and carried them in the American League Championship Series.
Nick Fairley filled in as Ortiz for the Tigers. He was a beast on the defensive line. A gentle giant off the field, Fairley was all claws and teeth between the lines. He shouldered the load for Auburn against Alabama with a game-saving strip then almost single handedly won the national title.
Johnny Damon was the long-haired motor who kept the Red Sox offense in gear while Manny and Papi got all the attention.
Long-haired Lee Ziemba turned in an All American performance on the Auburn offensive line paving the way for Newton, Mike Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb to get the glory.
But the individual similarities are only part of the story. The most striking correlation between the 2004 Red Sox and the 2010 Tigers is the path they travelled to reach the championship.
To reach the pinnacle, each had to first vanquish their primary rivals.
New York had been to the World Series four of the five seasons prior to 2004. The Yankees won three of those and entered 2004 after a six game series loss to Florida. They'd reached the 2003 series by eliminating the Red Sox in the League Championship on an eleventh inning Aaron Boone home run.
Alabama entered the 2010 season on the heels of back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, sporting their first national championship in 17 years and boasting their first Heisman Trophy winner in school history, Mark Ingram.
Boston reached the American League championship series against the Yankees and promptly fell behind three games to none. No team had ever overcome a three-game deficit and come back to win a league championship series.
Auburn rolled into the Iron Bowl against the defending champs needing a win to keep title hopes alive and promptly fell behind 24-0. No team in the history of the Iron Bowl had ever erased a 24-point deficit and no team had ever come back to beat an Alabama team after trailing by 24.
Boston battled back, took it one game at a time and won the series 4-3. The Sox went on to sweep St. Louis in the World Series, but it's the comeback against the Yankees that has come to define that team and will live forever in the hearts of Red Sox fans.
Auburn took one series at a time, battled back and found a way to beat back the Tide 28-27. Auburn went on to defeat South Carolina in the SEC Title Game and edge Oregon for the national title, but those memories will fade. Five years from now, Tiger fans will be hard pressed to remember who the team beat in the championship game, but they will forever remember the comeback against Alabama that set the stage.
Boston enjoyed continued success, eventually returning to and winning a second World Series in 2007.
Auburn has the opportunity to prove that the 2010 title wasn't the end of the journey but just the beginning. As the Sox proved, once you've been to the summit it's easier to get there the second time.
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