How Syracuse and Auburn Met in the 1988 Sugar Bowl
Had this game been played eight years later, a lot of football angst could have been avoided.
The games – which were always a big component of college football until overtime was installed in 1996 – and the way potential deadlocks were handled, colored the run-up to the 1988 Sugar Bowl.
Tennessee coach Johnny Majors took a lot of heat and second-guessing on Sept. 26th when he kicked an extra point with 1:20 remaining in the Vols’ SEC game with Auburn, evening the score at 20-20, instead of going for the victory with a two-point conversion attempt.
That game haunted the Vols throughout the fall, as a three-way race developed between Auburn, which finished 5-0-1 in the SEC, LSU (5-1) and Tennessee (4-1-1). Had Tennessee gone for the win – and made it – the Vols would have been league champions.
A new power was flexing its muscles in the East where Syracuse, under Coach Dick MacPherson, with an exciting quarterback bearing a similar name, Don McPherson, was running rampant – until the last game of the Orangemen’s so far unbeaten year.
It was a remarkable turnaround because Syracuse had gone 5-6 the previous season, but had won 10 straight going into the finale against West Virginia.
This was a heady experience for the Orangemen. It had been 23 years since Syracuse had last played in a major bowl game which was the historic Sugar Bowl of 1965 – and 28 years since its undefeated, untied national championship team of 1959. Now Syracuse was again among the elite, ranked fourth nationally.
The Mountaineers, though, gave the Orangemen almost more than they could handle on Nov. 21, in a game in which the opponents combined for 36 points in the fourth quarter. With seconds remaining, Syracuse scored the last touchdown to place the score at 31-30, West Virginia.
MacPherson had logical reason to settle for an extra point, and the tie: protecting what still would have been an unbeaten season. He opted to take his chances for a one-point victory, chancing a one-point loss.
A successful end-around play on the PAT gave the Orangemen the win, still considered the single greatest football moment in Carrier Dome annals.
Just as thrilled was the Sugar Bowl. When it secured fourth-ranked Syracuse and sixth-ranked SEC champion Auburn, the Sugar Bowl had what it considered a natural match-up and an intriguing bowl game; a North vs. South pairing with an exciting offensive team, Syracuse, against an Auburn squad that played defense with cold efficiency.
A compelling match-up for aficionados, it came at a good time for the Sugar Bowl, which had partnered with USF&G Financial Services to become the corporate sponsor of the annual game. This was not an original concept. The first corporate sponsorship was the Florida Citrus Bowl in 1983. Florida Citrus Council is the name of the business that replaced the longstanding title of the Tangerine Bowl. Sponsorship, which eased the burgeoning expenses of putting on the games, was an idea that soon spilled across the postseason football landscape.
Syracuse in particular had the appearance of a godsend to the Sugar’s selection committee. An Eastern team, especially an undefeated Eastern team, had the Sugar Bowl panting. After an extended run of No. 1 games that stretched from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, the Sugar Bowl found itself having to fight the battle of holiday pairings with, figuratively, one arm strapped to the small of its back. Each year the bowl had to sit tight while the fiercely competitive Southeastern Conference, the Sugar’s “anchor” league, where challengers would routinely cut each other up and eliminate each other from any No. 1 considerations.
Nov. 7 was a bloody Saturday for the Sugar Bowl because before that two SEC teams – Auburn and LSU – were legitimate national contenders, each undefeated but once tied. Florida State manhandled Auburn on that afternoon and Alabama upset LSU that night. The dual setbacks meant the Sugar Bowl would have to wait three weeks, until the Auburn-Alabama game, to find out which SEC team would play in New Orleans.
Auburn earned the right by beating ‘Bama, 10-0.
Syracuse still had an outside shot at the national championship.
Don McPherson, runner-up to Notre Dame’s Tim Brown in the Heisman Trophy balloting, was the ignition key to the Orange offense, having passed for 2,902 of his team’s 4,843 total yards. Overshadowed somewhat in the Orangemen’s 11-0-0 1987 was their defense. In the first six games of the season, before noseguard Ted Gregory was injured, Syracuse had the best statistical defense against the run (a 77.5 average) in the country. Gregory missed the last five games and Syracuse’s average ballooned to 199 yards in that span.
The 285 yards of total offense averaged against Syracuse compared to the 280 yards averaged against Auburn, the SEC’s best defensive unit, one that yielded just 10 points per opponent.
“Syracuse definitely has more to shoot for than we do,” Auburn linebacker Aundray Bruce said. “We’re here because we won our (conference) championship. What we have to do now is uphold the honor of the SEC.”
The talk rankled the Orangemen. “We’d like for the people down South, and the nation, to know that we play good football in the East,” said Syracuse free safety Markus Paul. “We haven’t gotten any respect this season. As we built our winning streak this year, everybody kept waiting for us to get beat. We didn’t. Now we’re playing Auburn, a team with a loss and a tie, and we’re still an underdog. I just don’t like that.”
He was fit to be tied.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.