If the Kentucky football season somehow survives the pandemic intact, the Wildcats on Week Five will find themselves down on the Plains, challenging the Auburn Tigers. It will be the 10th anniversary of the night the upstart Cats nearly changed college football history.
Snap your fingers. Or hold your hands apart about as wide as your shoulders. That’s how close it was.
Let your mind drift back to Oct. 10, 2010. The undefeated, 8th-ranked Tigers had come to Lexington to take on Joker Phillips’ team, 0-2 in the SEC after a run of three wins to open the season. Kentucky’s multi-talented catalyst was Randall Cobb. That Auburn team virtually WAS a quarterback named Cam Newton.
He would go on to win the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most coveted individual award. And Auburn would finish running the table at 14-0 with a victory over Oregon in the BCS championship game. But neither might have happened, if not for one play that night at Commonwealth Stadium.
The Tigers had answered a 1st-quarter Cobb touchdown by ripping off 24 straight points, before Kentucky was able to answer late in the 2nd quarter, Cobb himself throwing for a touchdown. Still, Auburn had a 31-17 halftime lead at intermission.
Incredibly, the Wildcats owned the third quarter, scoring 14 unanswered points – thanks, once again, to Cobb, who caught a TD pass from Mike Hartline and scored another on the ground. Cobb had produced touchdowns by running, passing and receiving. Not even Newton had done that, but he also had an incredibly productive evening, as it turned out.
The score was knotted at 31 after three quarters and remained tied at 34 after the teams swapped field goals seven minutes into the last period. The Tigers had the football, about to begin what turned out to be perhaps the biggest drive of the regular season, and one of the most important in Auburn history.
It nearly became a disaster.
Kentucky had just tied the game and kicked off, Demond Washington back deep for the visitors. He initially muffed the catch but recovered and brought it out before clumsily trying to hand off to Terrell Zachery, who was looking to reverse the field against the onrushing UK defenders.
The two Tigers, under pressure from Wildcat gunner Matt Roark, fumbled the exchange before Zachery fell on the ball at the Auburn six. There were still more than seven minutes left to play but Auburn was buried, deep in its own territory.
It was all Cam Newton for the next five plays until the Tigers had a first down on their own 30, with 5:16 remaining. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, now the Tigers’ head coach, called for an end-around, looking to take advantage of the Kentucky defenders and use their aggressiveness against them. It nearly backfired in an historic way.
Newton handed off to Zachery, the same man who had botched the attempted reverse on the previous kickoff. Zachery took a hard shot from Martavius Neloms and Danny Trevathan and once again, let go of the football. It bounced and for a tantalizing moment, hung in the air, belonging to nobody, to anybody. Randall Burden, wearing a blue jersey, got there first.
Dropping to his knees, he grabbed the football with both hands and pulled it in to his chest as he slid out of bounds. The Big Blue Nation roared. Auburn fans, the thousands who had secured tickets to the road game as well as the millions watching at home, gulped. TV cameras caught a shot of a Tiger fan with his head in his hands, fearing the worst.
Those same fans had been giddy during pre-game warm-ups, watching the Commonwealth Stadium Diamondvision screens that showed South Carolina upsetting hated Alabama, clearing the path for the Tigers’ run at the SEC West. A turnover here would be devastating.
Only, it was Kentucky fans who would have to swallow the bitter disappointment. Officials on the field ruled that Burden did not secure possession until he was out of bounds and television replays backed them up.
It was so, so close. Had the UK defensive back arrived at the ball a split-second sooner, in the time it takes to snap your fingers, he makes the play. Or if he recovers just a couple more feet in bounds, roughly the distance between your shoulders, it’s Kentucky football.
And then what?
It would have been the Wildcats, setting up at the Auburn 27 with five minutes to play. The UK offense had come alive in the second half, well enough to move the football on three scoring drives. And the Cats already were in field goal range. Perhaps they would have eaten most of the clock and come up with at least three points – and maybe seven. Then Auburn might have needed a miracle to score.
And here’s where the “If” becomes huge: If Kentucky had pulled off the upset, what are the chances that a 12-1 Auburn still ends up in the BCS title game? Most likely a 12-0 TCU team, which finished third that year behind quarterback Andy Dalton, would have gotten the shot against Oregon.
And would Newton have been the man accepting the big trophy in New York? Or would voters have eschewed a QB who “couldn’t beat Kentucky” and chosen Stanford’s Andrew Luck?
(Even with a loss in Lexington, Newton would have been deserving; his passing stats closely approximated Luck’s and he also rushed for more than 1,500 yards, including a career-high 198 against Kentucky. But voters sometimes let logic slip away).
Upon further review, it’s a moot point because Auburn kept the football. Newton expertly guided his team on a 19-play, 86-yard scoring drive that ended as Wes Byrum kicked his school-record 51st field goal as the horn sounded. The Tigers remained perfect.
It was arguably Auburn’s most dramatic regular-season victory; even the Tigers’ 28-27 comeback win over Alabama was a bit more comfortable by comparison. They fell behind 24-0 in the first half but rolled over the Crimson Tide in the second, scoring the eventual winning TD and extra point with a cushy three minutes remaining.
In Lexington, they needed all 60 minutes – and a little bit of luck.
Their scoring drive was a precursor of things to come in the BCS title game. Auburn and Oregon were tied at 19 with 2:33 to play; Newton calmly led the Tigers on a 73-yard drive, Byrum the hero again when he kicked a 19-yard field goal as time expired, capping a 22-19 win.
Auburn fans that night likely screamed, “War Eagle!” until their lungs gave out and why not? But one DOES wonder: Did any of them think back to that October night in Lexington, when the train nearly slipped off the tracks – in the time it takes to snap your fingers.