AUBURN — Wes Byrum sprinted across the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, raising his arms and doing the “Gator Chomp” in front of a raucous crowd of 90,685 that fell silent as soon as the Auburn placekicker’s game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights.
Urban Meyer dropped his head and ran his hand through his hair. The Florida head coach called a timeout just before the freshman’s first attempt, but it didn’t matter — Byrum made the second attempt as time expired, giving unranked Auburn a 20-17 victory over No. 4 Florida.
Brandon Cox charged onto the field, both arms raised above his head. Kodi Burns chased after Byrum to start the celebratory dogpile. Rod Bramblett, from his familiar perch in the radio booth, shouted “See you later, Alligator!”
Tim Tebow crouched down, his eyes staring of into nothing as he tried to comprehend what just happened.
“That was a tough night,” the then-Florida quarterback recalled last week. “Gosh.”
A lot has happened since that Sept. 29, 2007, game. Auburn is on its third different head coach, going from Tommy Tuberville to Gene Chizik to now Gus Malzahn. Florida is on its fourth, following Meyer with Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and now Dan Mullen. Byrum is now an assistant state attorney based in Fort Lauderdale. Tebow has had time to play three seasons in the NFL, start a minor league baseball career and become an SEC Network analyst.
One thing that hasn’t happened: A rematch at The Swamp. That will finally take place Saturday, when No. 7 Auburn makes the 300-trip south to face No. 10 Florida in Gainesville for the first time since Byrum made that kick 12 years and three days ago.
“That is pretty unique,” Malzahn said this week.
Malzahn is in his 10th season at Auburn, spending the first three (2009-11) as the offensive coordinator and the last seven (2013-19) as head coach. During that time, he has visited 13 out of 14 stadiums in the SEC. Florida’s is the only one he hasn’t been to.
In fact, the two teams who share a border and recruiting territory have met on the field only once since that 2007 game — Oct. 15, 2011 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn won that game 17-6.
The once-great annual rivalry was a casualty of conference realignment. The Tigers and Gators met 83 times between 1912 and 2011 (Auburn leads the all-time series 43-38-2), including 48 consecutive years from 1945-2002. That run ended with a 30-23 Florida victory in Gainesville where Gators defensive end Bobby McCray blocked Damon Duval’s game-winning field goal attempt and Rex Grossman threw a 25-yard game-winning touchdown to Taylor Jacobs in overtime.
Since then, the Tigers and Gators have met just three times (2006, 2007 and 2011). The reduction from two permanent cross-division rivals down to one in 2002 was a body blow. The addition of Texas A&M and Missouri to the conference in 2012 proved the death knell — the current seven-season gap between meetings is the longest since the two teams have gone since a nine-year stretch between the 1917 and 1927 campaigns.
That won’t change anytime soon — after Saturday’s game, unless the two teams meet in an SEC Championship game, they’re not scheduled to see each other on the field until again until 2024 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I think for the fans and for the players, to have these games be played more often would be benefit for everyone,” said Mullen, who was the offensive coordinator at Florida from 2005-08 before spending nine years as Mississippi State’s head coach then returning to Gainesville last season. “That's why you want to come in the SEC, to play big games and to play other SEC schools. So I think it would be great for these games to be played more often."
The rivalry has created plenty of unforgettable moments. Mullen should know that better than most — he remembers that 2007 game at The Swamp for a much different reason than Byrum’s game-winning kick.
His story that year started Thursday, when he sweated through a staff meeting and “just felt like something wasn’t right.” He got some treatment, went to practice and did a radio show that night, but he still didn’t feel well when get came back to work on Friday. He made it through meetings, a walk-through and a team dinner before it was finally decided that he needed go to the hospital.
At 10 p.m. on Friday night, less than 24 hours before kickoff against Auburn, Mullen underwent an emergency appendectomy. He spent the morning of the game chugging water, doing laps around Shands Hospital and going to the bathroom as many times as necessary to be discharged, which he said finally happened at around 3:30 p.m. And if that wasn’t enough complications before a game, Mullen said his police escort got into a minor fender-bender on the way to the stadium.
“Everything’s just insanity,” he recalled this week.
Mullen did end up calling plays that night.
Some other games worth remembering:
The first game ever played at Auburn Stadium, which later became Jordan-Hare Stadium. Jack Meagher’s Tigers and Josh Cody’s Gators played to a 7-7 tie. Florida went on to lose their next 12 games on the Plains, not winning at Jordan-Hare Stadium until 1973.
Gators athletic director Ray Graves described that 12-8 upset as “one of the greatest moments in University of Florida football history."
Auburn led 6-3 late in the fourth quarter, but Florida had the offense pinned inside its own 3-yard line. Rather than risk a turnover, coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan had punter Johnny Kern take a knee in the end zone for a safety and a free kick out of harm’s way. The defense held on for a 6-5 win.
Steve Spurrier was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback before he was a national championship head coach, and in 1966, he was also a game-winning place-kicker — the Tigers stopped the Gators’ offense outside of the range of the team’s regular kicker, but Spurrier had hit 40-yarders in practice, so he tried one with 2:12 remaining in a game that was tide, 27-27. He hit it, and Florida won by 3.
Auburn led 19-17 in the fourth quarter when Florida wide receiver Wes Chandler caught a pass from Jimmy Fisher and weaved his way through the entire defense for the go-ahead touchdown in an eventual 24-19 win. Maybe the only member of the Tigers who touched him was War Eagle IV, which swooped of its perch behind the end zone and started pecking at Chandler after he crossed the goal line. Auburn was assessed a 15-yard penalty for mascot interference.
Pat Dye’s No. 5-ranked Auburn team led unranked Florida 17-0 early in the fourth quarter thanks to a huge day on the ground from Brent Fullwood, prompting Galen Hall to bring starting quarterback Kerwin Bell, who had missed two straight games with a knee injury, in off the bench. Former Tigers placekicker Robert McGinty kicked a 51-yard field goal to get the Gators within a touchdown, and Bell hit Ricky Nattiel for a 5-yard touchdown with 36 seconds remaining. Florida went for two and the win (rather than one and the tie) and converted, winning the game 18-17.
You’ll hear about this one a lot leading up to and during Saturday’s game. The Tigers trailed the top-ranked Gators 33-29 when defensive back Brian Robinson intercepted a pass from Florida’s backup quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, with 1:20 remaining. Patrick Nix, the father of current true freshman Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, hit favorite target Frank Sanders on an 8-yard corner route in the end zone 50 seconds later to lift the Tigers to a 36-33 victory.
“He has a good, nice little highlight video against Florida in ’94,” Bo Nix said of his father, who completed 28 of 51 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns that day. “He played out of his mind, probably his best game he ever played.”
The younger Nix is coming off the best game he’s ever played — 16 of 21 for 335 yards and two touchdowns, seven carries for 56 yards and another score in a 56-23 rout of Mississippi State this past Saturday.
Unranked Auburn entered the game as a 21-point underdog against No. 1 Florida, but it intercepted quarterback Rex Grossman four times and held the Gators’ rushing attack to minus-36 yards on the ground in a 23-20 win. Duval made the game-winning 44-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining.
No. 2 Florida led 17-11 early in the third quarter when punter Eric Wilbur dropped a snap on fourth-and-18 from deep in his own territory. He managed to pick the ball up and get a foot on it, but Jerraud Powers was right there to block it. Tre Smith returned the loose ball 15 yards for a touchdown that gave No. 11 Auburn its first lead in a game it would go on to win 27-17.
With both teams undefeated and ranked top-10 nationally, Saturday could be another memorable game. But be sure to savor it — it may be five years until Auburn and Florida meet again.
“I wished they played all the time," Tebow said. "It would be hard to make that happen. But I think it’s a great game.”