LSU hadn’t won an SEC title since 1988 and the famed Earthquake Game, but in 2001, LSU played a December game at Tiger Stadium for the chance to play in its first SEC Championship Game. As fortune would have it, LSU had to play the same Auburn Tigers.
However, back in 1988, Auburn was a rarely played conference mate which didn’t really move the needle in Baton Rouge. By 2001, Auburn had blossomed into a blood rival. This wasn’t the absolute pinnacle of the LSU-Auburn rivalry, but it was pretty damn close.
The biggest home game in over a decade almost didn’t happen. Originally, LSU was scheduled to host Auburn on September 15, but the game was cancelled due to 9/11. There’s no telling what would have happened had the season played out without an interruption from several madmen, but the rescheduled game turned into a de facto playoff game for the SEC West title.
LSU started the season ranked in the polls, only to drop out in early October thanks to consecutive losses to Tennessee and Florida. Nick Saban had brought a new attitude to Baton Rouge, but the Eastern powers showed just how far behind the program was at the time.
LSU rebounded with two straight conference wins, then dropped a game to West-leading Ole Miss. Frankly, at 4-3 with three SEC losses, the season seemed to be a wash. But then LSU beat Alabama in the most Rohan-to-Reed game in history. After a thrilling win over #24 Arkansas, LSU found itself just a game behind Auburn in the SEC West standings thanks to an Alabama Iron Bowl win and Ole Miss collapsing with a three-game losing streak.
Inexplicably, LSU could win the SEC West with a win at home against Auburn. The Tigers had been mostly forgotten for the most of the season, and seemingly had no shot at contention. And that’s when Auburn swaggered into the most amped up Tiger Stadium in what had seemed like forever.
I get that Auburn wasn’t going to sneak into this game. LSU had been starved for a winner throughout the Dark ages, and this was the team’s best chance to make its first SEC Championship Game since the SEC expanded in 1992. That’s a lot of pent up frustration.
But Auburn didn’t make things easier on themselves by stomping on the eye at midfield. A scuffle ensued, and somehow Auburn incurred a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty before the game even started.
Kicking off from the 50 and sensing an opportunity, Saban called for the onside kick. Michael Clayton, special teams god, recovered the ball on the Auburn 36 and quickly pushed the ball to five thanks to Rohan-to-Reed. LaBrandon Toefield would cross the plane two plays later.
People remember the early LSU touchdown, but they forget that Auburn responded right away. Heck, Clayton’s tackle on the return is fondly remembered (still a special teams god), but it was a play that set up a touchdown drive for Auburn. From their own 28 yard line, Jason Campbell found Tim Carter in the LSU secondary, and no one would lay a hand on him as he streaked to the end zone. All of that early momentum went up in smoke in about a minute and half.
The game settled in to more of a back and forth Auburn-LSU affair that we were used to in this era. Rohan Davey would guide the team just inside of the Auburn 30, but the drive stalled out and Alton Moore would block John Corbello’s 46-yard field goal attempt.
Jason Campbell would respond by throwing an interception on the very next play. LSU was right back in business in Auburn’s side of the field, but Davey would throw an interception of his own on 3rd and 2. No, Davey was not perfect.
Thanks to a Domanick Davis punt return, LSU would start its next drive right at midfield again. This time Rohan would cash in by connecting with Josh Reed on consecutive 3rd and longs, the second a 17-yard touchdown strike on third and 9.
Later in the second quarter, LSU would march down the field 79 yards, keyed by a Josh Reed 30 yard reception. Domanick Davis would carry the ball over the line on first and goal, and LSU took a 21-7 lead into the half. Auburn had barely threatened outside of the long pass to Carter.
Inexplicably, Auburn decided the crowd was not pumped up enough. Damon Duval refused to leave the field at the end of the half, trying to get in one more practice kick. He ended up surrounded by the Tiger Band, who were in no mood to be shown up by a kicker. A scuffle ensued, and yes, our band beat up their kicker. I’ve never been more proud.
LSU started the half with the ball again, but Davey could not convert on third and goal, forcing a field goal. It didn’t matter, the score was now 24-7, and the crowd could smell blood.
Auburn responded with a drive of its own, but Marcus Spears sacked Jason Campbell on third down to force a short 29-yard field goal. Duval, clearly rattled by the Tiger Band, missed.
John Corbello would add another short field goal in the fourth to push the lead to 27-7. Auburn’s last gasp was set up by a face mask and some after-the-whistle extracurriculars. Chris Butler would find some running room and scored a make-the-score-look-better touchdown with three and half to play.
LSU would convert three first downs to finally get in position to run a victory formation on the game’s final play. Tiger Stadium erupted and the fans, of which I was one, stormed the field.
During their last trip to Tiger Stadium, Auburn posed for photographs after the game. The image of the Auburn players smoking cigars on the filed with the 41-7 score alit in the background was seared into the brain of every LSU fan at the time. Just about every fan of legal age, and some they weren’t, showed up to the game with a cigar ready for the postgame.
As LSU celebrated its first ever SEC West title, the fans stormed the field, cigars dangling from their mouths. LSU football was back, and the years of losing fell off of our backs like ashes from the cigar.
31-20 Tennessee (SEC Championship Game)
47-34 Illinois (Sugar Bowl)
19 receptions for 293 yards. That’s a real stat line. Josh Reed did that against Alabama, and it was the game that turned the season around. LSU already had some wins under their belt, but after the Ole Miss loss, things looked dire. Saban went to what worked: Rohan-to-Reed. He went to it again and again until he finally had gone to it 19 times. Bama was helpless against Reed that night. The Arkansas game set up the Auburn showdown. LSU went up 41-25 with 8:21 to play, but Arkansas scored two quick touchdowns. Things got pretty nervy, but on 3rd and 13, Rohan found… who else? Josh Reed for 30 yards. The SEC Championship Game was a blast keyed by an untimely injury and the unheralded and largely unknown Matt Mauck guiding the team to a revenge win over Tennessee. There’s a great oral history of that game you should read, and while it was a huge game for LSU, I think it looms larger in Tennessee’s history as a missed opportunity. And the Sugar Bowl was one of the best parties ever, but it was clearly a low pressure curtain call.
2001 is the birth of the new Golden Age of Tiger Football. And the foundation of the Golden Age is beating Auburn.
What’s the Greatest Game of 2001?
This poll is closed
The Cigar Game II (Auburn)
Dodging a Bullet (Arkansas)
The SEC Title! (Tennessee)
The Afterparty (Illinois)