When Penn State announced a home and home series against Auburn, I started to plan my trip. It’s not often that the Big Ten and SEC schedule games against each other. Sure, they meet up in the Bowl games, but that’s an “arranged marriage”, so to speak. Since Penn State joined the conference in 1993, there have only been seven other regular-season, non-neutral site games played between the two powerhouse conferences – with the B1G owing a 5-2 record in those contests.
It takes some gumption, to use a southern term, for the perceived little-brother Big Ten to schedule a series with the media-darling SEC. In fact, Penn State didn’t do it just once – they did it twice. The last time, they took on Alabama in a home-and-home series was in 2010 and 2011. Besides those two series, the only other SEC team to schedule any non-neutral sites games against the B1G was perennial doormat Vanderbilt – they had a home/home against Northwestern in 2010/2012 and two other away-game paydays against Purdue and Michigan. The Commodores lost all 4 games (including one with James Frankling as the head coach).
Sure, Penn State lost those two against Alabama, including the one we attended in Tuscaloosa in 2010, but you have to remember that Penn State did them a favor by rescheduling the series at their request. The Tide was coming off of sanctions and they wanted to be able to compete against the Lions so we agreed to push out the series – unfortunately, during that time, Saban came in and made Bama a juggernaut.
After last year’s matchup against the Tigers in a Whiteout in Happy Valley, we were anxious to visit the Auburn campus. During our visit to Alabama in 2010, the fans couldn’t have been more kind and we were looking forward to experiencing that southern hospitality again.
Auburn the town is much like State College – a small college-town in the middle of nowhere with limited hotel capacity. Because of that, we decided to stay in Columbus, Georgia, a reasonably easy 45-minute drive from the campus with an abundance of hotel options.
On Friday, we popped into an awesome coffee shop in Columbus before heading into Auburn. Iron Bank Coffee not only serves some creative coffee drinks but also offers sandwiches for breakfast and lunch as well as an impressive lineup of draft beers.
In case you didn’t guess, it’s actually housed in a former bank building and it includes a reservable room in one of the bank’s former vaults. The building has a unique history that dates back to 1855, coincidentally, the same year as PSU’s founding, and you can read about it here.
We time-traveled from Columbus to Auburn and arrived before we left due to the time change once we crossed the Chattahoochee River and enter Alabama.
By 11:15am the day before the game, we noticed chairs and colorful tape were set up in some shady spots all around campus. We weren’t sure what this meant, but before long we came to realize that they allow fans to claim their tailgate spots the day before the game!
Technically, no tailgating is allowed until after 4pm on Friday, but we saw a few dedicated fans already enjoying the festivities.
Auburn was founded in 1856 as “East Alabama Male College” and was originally associated with the Methodist Church. In 1872, the college became a Land Grant University, like Penn State, under the Morrill Act.
In those early years, classes were held in their Old Main building. In 1887, the building was destroyed by a fire in the chemical lab.
It was reported that “no doubt is entertained that the fire was caused by rats gnawing on matches.” The building was quickly rebuilt using some of the salvaged original brick. They designed it to (largely) look like the original and today it’s known as Samford Hall – serving as the University’s administrative office.
By 1858, the University was already becoming famous. Professor John Darby invented and started selling “Darby’s Prophylactic Fluid” which was marketed as a cure for Yellow and Typhoid Fever. It became a wildly used medicine in the southeastern US.
I don’t know about you, but if I owned a bar in Auburn, you can bet I’d have this as the name of a shot on the menu. I can see it now, at The Southeastern – Darby’s Prophylactic Fluid, Orange Juice, layered with Tequila, and a float of Blue Curacao.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Auburn’s campus was beautiful. Some rolling hills with well-maintained, brick buildings and streets. The shot below shows the undulation of the terrain with the 87,000-seat Jordan-Hare Stadium looking small in the near distance.
One of the traditions at Auburn is the “World Famous” lemonade served up at Toomer’s Drug Store, which sits catty-corner from the University at the corner of Magnolia and College, one of the main intersections of the town.
The store dates back to 1896. Its founder, Sheldon “Shel” Toomer, was a halfback on Auburn’s first football team, Shel would graduate from the school and go on to become a pharmacist and owner of the legendary corner store. Today, the store sells gallons of lemonade on gameday and is well-stocked with Auburn gear.
We asked how they make the drink but we promptly met with “we can’t share the recipe.” So, I decided to see if the internet would oblige. Sure enough, an article popped up. Take it for what it’s worth.
At the opposite corner is Toomer’s Oaks, the famous trees that are covered in toilet paper after every Auburn win.
It’s been estimated that sometime in the 1950s, the students started “rolling the trees” with every Auburn win. Students would gather at Toomer’s Corners and launch streams of toilet paper all over the large oak trees at the corner of campus – trees that date back to 1937. Over time, the tradition morphed into a celebration whenever anything good happened at Auburn.
In late 2010, after Auburn beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl, a Bama fan poisoned the trees. Harvey Updyke called into the Paul Finebaum radio show and actually confessed to the crime. Updyke would be convicted on felony charges and would spend 70 days in jail and was ordered to pay $800,000 in restitution. He had only paid an estimated $6,900 before he died in July 2020. Later in 2010, I would witness Cam Newton and Auburn as they went on to win their second National Championship by beating Oregon 22-19 in BCS Championship game in Glendale, AZ.
The trees that died were replaced by new, fully grown trees in 2013 and the tradition of “rolling the trees” resumed in 2016. Thankfully, we didn’t get to witness this iconic tradition on our visit! Instead, we toasted the tradition with lemonade!
Outside of the stadium, there are a few statues honoring the school’s Heisman Trophy winners – and Mr. Heisman himself! That’s right. John William Heisman was a coach at Auburn from 1895-1899. It was rumored that after Heisman left Auburn to coach for Clemson, he took some old, faded uniforms with him. And that’s how Clemson got their colors!
First up was Pat Sullivan, the 1971 winner. Sullivan’s stats for 1971? 182/325 for 2,262 yards with 21 TDs and 13 INTs for a passer rating of 127.79. Compare that to last year’s winner, Bryce Young’s 366/547 for 4872 yards with 47 TDs, 7 INTs and a passer rating of 167.52. I think Pat got away with one. Especially considering the runner-up in 1971 was Ed Marinaro, a Cornell running back turned actor. Sullivan garnered 32% of the vote with Marinaro pulling 29%.
In 1985, Bo Jackson became the school’s second Heisman winner after tallying 1786 yards on 278 attempts (6.4avg) along with 17 TDs. Bo narrowly claimed victory over runner-up Chuck Long, Iowa’s QB. Bo ended up with 33.86% of the vote vs Long’s 32.85%.
And finally, in 2010, Cam Newton ran away with the Heisman with 44% of the vote compared to 2nd place finisher Andrew Luck’s 21%. No, I’m not going to make any laptop jokes. That’s when he was with Florida.
On Friday’s during football season, the Southeastern Raptor Center hosts Football, Fans, and Feathers, a raptor show that highlights birds of prey. The educational show features owls, hawks, falcons, vultures, and of course, eagles! At the end of the show, they allow you to snap some up-close-and-personal photos with some of the performers. I got the opportunity of a lifetime to snap a photo with Independence, the Bald Eagle who would perform at Jordan-Hare the next day!
After touring the campus most of the day, we headed back towards Toomer’s to see if we can grab a drink before dinner. When we walked into The Southeastern we were blown away by the number of Penn Staters! The place was full of blue and white – inside, upstairs, and on the patio! Of course, we ran into our friends Ken and Susan there. We even ran into Tony, a Penn State fan from Berwick we had met a couple of weeks ago while in Purdue.
As the sun set on a warm day, we made our way back to Columbus for a late dinner at The Loft on Broadway.
On Saturday morning, we were up and out early! Given the number of reserved tailgate spots we had seen the day before, we were expecting an early crowd – and getting in and out of Auburn is similar to Penn State with limited access. We were pleasantly surprised when we showed up that the town was relatively dead and the majority of the people we had seen were once again, Penn Staters.
Pro Tip: Grab a spot in the Wright St Garage by Toomer’s before they start charging for gameday and save $30! We arrived in town just before 8am for the 2:30pm kickoff.
We were told by some Auburn fans to eat breakfast at the Big Blue Bagel on College – the equivalent of Irving’s in State College. The line was long, but it moved quickly. And it was also full of blue and white!
A decked-out truck called the War Wagon was doing laps around Toomer’s Corner so I had to grab a photo.
One thing we noticed on Saturday morning is that the true tailgating really didn’t seem to start until much later than expected. At Penn State the place would be crawling with people and breakfast foods would be being prepped throughout the lots. Here, it seemed like everyone slept in and got a late start.
Before you knew though, the empty chairs filled and there were some serious tailgating setups. Several trailers were seen with their doors opened to reveal quite the elaborate storage facility. Tents with chairs underneath all aimed at multiple large-screen TVs were the norm. Virtually everyone we saw on the lawns had a generator to handle the high-tech setups.
I did happen to learn a new game while I was there, Beer Die. Also known as Beer Dye or Snappa. It’s game that tests your reflexes. A standard 4×8 sheet of plywood is used as the playing surface. Cups are filled with beer or water and are set to line the corners of each side. A single die is thrown in the air (8-10 feet up) to your opponent’s side. If your opponent doesn’t catch the die after it hits the surface, you get a point. If they catch the die with one hand after it hits the table but before it hits the ground, they cancel the point. If the die bounces off a cup after it hits the surface, you get two points and if the die lands in the cup on the fly, you get 3 points. I just happened to catch the rare 3-point play on video!
We passed by Helen Keller Hall along the Quad on our walk. Keller was born in Alabama but left at a young age. I wasn’t able to determine the tie to Auburn., but the building serves as a girls-only dormitory today.
Another thing we noticed was the amount of RevelXP/Tailgate Guys tents. The place was full of prearranged hospitality tents set up for their clients. Several had unique names for the tailgate, like the two below.
The vast majority of the RevelXP tents were set up in the shadows of Jordan-Hare.
We wanted to join Penn State for Bus Arrival, but their location was behind security gates on the north side of the stadium. Instead, we joined Auburn’s famed “Tiger Walk.” The players walk along Donahue Dr and enter the stadium on the south side. Before the players began to arrive, we got to snap a shot of the tiger that guards the entrance.
Behind the cat stands three brand new statues that were unveiled in October 2021. The statues honor Shug Jordan, Cliff Hare, and Pat Dye, the three men for which the stadium and field are named – Pat Dye Field at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
And then the Tiger Walk started. Very similar to Penn State’s famed “Bus Arrival”, but much closer quarters. Aubie the mascot leads the cheerleaders and team on the walk before entering the stadium.
And last but not least to arrive was Coach Bryan Harsin. Harsin has been under some harsh criticism. In February of this year, it was believed that some disgruntled boosters launch a smear campaign against him to try to get him fired. Harsin came out emphatically denying the allegations of an affair with an intern-turned-assistant and the story was squashed.
After that, it was time to enter the stadium. One thing we wanted to see for sure was my new buddy Independence soaring around the stadium during pregame. The eagle was released to our right but didn’t come into view until she made it to the other end of the stadium. From there, she came in for a smooth landing at the 50 yard-line.
Those on the field had an infinitely better view of Independence! Check out this video from the Football Letter.
Of course, any big game needs a flyover from our military!
Unfortunately, I only caught a glimpse of them on video.
Penn State opened the game with a decent drive that was forced into a 4th and 1 after a hit on Sean Clifford that was felt in the upper deck. Clifford bounced back up and tried a sneak for the first down but was stopped short. The Tigers turned the stop into 3 points – but it was considered a win for Penn State’s defense.
The Lions answered quickly aided by a couple of big runs and a couple of Mitchell Tinsley receptions that set up Clifford for a QB run from the 7 for the go-ahead TD.
The Lions couldn’t capitalize after a nifty Zakee Wheatley interception and Auburn cut the score to 7-6 on their next possession.
But once again, Penn State answered with a TD after a 25-yard pass from KeAndre Lambert-Smith passed to Sean Clifford. Yes, you read that correctly. Clifford lateralled to Lambert-Smith before Lambert-Smith passed it back to Cliff with a team of blockers out front. 14-6 Lions, a lead that would remain into the half.
Coming out of the half, the visitors were on fire! On their next five possessions, they scored three TDs and two FGs while the defense forced two turnovers and two punts to put the Lions up 31-6 before finally surrendering a TD at the beginning of the 4th.
By then, the game was firmly in control of the Lions at 38-12. As many Auburn fans streamed toward the exits, some Penn State fans started to chant to those that had given up hope. Those chanting were immediately met by other Penn Staters who swiftly jumped in to stop the taunting. The Auburn fans had been so polite, welcoming, and gracious the entire weekend and many Penn State fans simply wanted to reciprocate.
In the end, Penn State tacked on ten more points, seven of which came after yet another Nicholas Singleton long TD run. The true freshman continues to turn heads in the country and now leads the nation in several categories.
Penn State opens the season at 3-0 after what many claimed to be a very difficult stretch that included two road games in hostile environments. I think most reasonable people would have been happy with 2-1 given the amount of young talent and question marks on both sides of the ball.
Next up, they will host Central Michigan followed by Northwestern before their bye week. They will have a solid chance to enter mid-October 5-0. By then, the youngsters will have been tested thoroughly and the question marks will be challenged even more so.
Coming off of the bye, things amp up quickly. They start the gauntlet by playing at #4 Michigan, followed by home games against Minnesota and #3 Ohio State. While the Gophers are unranked at the moment, they are averaging 50 points per game on offense while only surrendering 6 on defense. Will the Lions shock everyone outside of Lasch? Time will tell.
This is my second trip to SEC Country for a game and I have to say, I love the history, tradition and hospitality. The Auburn fans were genuinely happy to have us as guests and many of them commented on how much they enjoyed their time in Happy Valley last year. With the coming changes in the college football landscape, I don’t know how many more of these regular-season games will be scheduled, but it’s shame there’s not more. Tradition-rich fan bases deserve to experience each others campuses and history. As the Big Ten and SEC continue to aggressively expand their membership and footprint, I’d encourage them to get rid of the neutral site games and start scheduling home-and-home series. Can you imagine if Penn State can schedule a home and home against Georgia, or LSU, or Tennessee, or… ?