The day it was announced UCF would play Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, I went back into the UCF Media Guide to look at the all-time series against the Tigers:
#UCF’s history vs. #Auburn:— Jeff Sharon (@Jeff_Sharon) December 3, 2017
1997 - Loss 41-14
1998 - Loss 10-6
1999 - Loss 28-10
All three games were at Auburn, but that 1998 game stands out for obvious reasons.
Set the stage: It was November 7, 1998, and senior QB Daunte Culpepper, head coach Mike Kruczek and the I-A Independent Golden Knights (kinda feels nice typing that again) were 7-1, possibly in position for a bowl game - unheard of if you're an independent not called Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, Auburn was enduring a season from hell. A 24-3 loss to #5 Florida in Gainesville on October 17th dropped the Tigers to 1-5. Then, the day before the Tigers were set to face Louisiana Tech, Terry Bowden was fired as the head coach and replaced by defensive coordinator Bill Oliver. They beat Louisiana Tech, raising their record to 2-5.
So these two teams were trending in opposite directions when they came face to face with one another on Auburn's Homecoming at Jordan-Hare Stadium that November day.
Back then, it was yet one more close call for UCF against a now-Power Five school. I knew about it - "The Fumble" - but I'd never seen how it all went down.
Well, here it is on YouTube, in all its painful glory. I've set it to start playing below at the critical moment in the 4th, with UCF up 6-3 and driving inside the Auburn 20 with 1:51 left (Go to 2:12:46 if it doesn’t work properly):
"UCF has come so close, and yet they're so far from that signature win." - Andrew Monaco
By the way, yes, that's Charles Davis, now of FOX's NFL coverage, on the call as the analyst for Sunshine Network.
Here are the highlights, if you dare put yourself through this. But seriously, why would you? No - don't do it to yourself. Please don't. NOOOOOOOO:
- UCF takes the opening kickoff and marches 58 yards on 14 plays in 7:04, only to be stopped at the Auburn 8. Fred Waczewski hits a 24-yarder to put UCF up 3-0.
- UCF's second drive takes up another 10 plays and reaches the Auburn 37, but Mike Krucek decides to go for it on 4th and 5, and Culpepper throws an interception to Larry Casher.
- In the second quarter, Auburn QB Gabe Gross throws a pick to UCF DB Damian Demps, who fumbles it forward about 15 yards, where it's picked up by the Knights at the Auburn 36. Culpepper drives UCF down to a 1st and goal at the Auburn 3, but after a false start and a delay of game, he tosses his second interception of the day to Auburn's Jayson Bray at the goal line.
- The Tigers' ensuing possession gets nothing, and Siaha Burley returns the punt all the way to Auburn's 24. But again they stall at the 6, and Waczewski knocks home a 26-yarder to make it 6-0 Golden Knights.
- After Auburn converts Culpepper's third interception into a field goal early in the third quarter, Paul Miranda sets the Knights up in good field position with a 42-yard kickoff return. The offense again marches inside Auburn's 10, but on 2nd and goal at the 8, Culpepper throws his fourth pick of the game to Casher again at the goal line. A fourth goal-to-go situation ends with no touchdown.
- In the fourth quarter, Auburn mounts a rare drive down to the UCF 32, but Damian Demps recovers a Rusty Williams fumble, and the Knights look to have staved off the biggest threat to their lead yet.
- On the ensuing drive, UCF reaches the Auburn 34. But rather than go for it on 4th and 2, Kruczek bluffs. He decides to punt and Chad Downey pins Auburn at their own 2.
- The Knights get the ball back again, drive down to the Auburn 20, and look like they're going to slam the door on the Tigers with 1:51 left. And then...The Fumble.
- Three straight incompletions leave Auburn with a 4th and 10 on their own 29. With the game on the line, Gabe Gross, who for some stupid reason wears number 22 even though he's a quarterback, finds Clifton Robinson on a comeback for 13 yards and a first down with 1:22 left and Auburn is still alive. And yes, that's Gene Chizik, who would coach Auburn to a national championship with Cam Newton 13 years later, in the coaches' booth for UCF that day.
- On the very next play, Gross finds Karsten Bailey on a short out, and when Damian Demps overplays him and misses the tackle, Bailey outruns Tyrell Rice and sprints untouched into the end zone. 58 yards later, Auburn had a 10-6 lead with just 57 seconds left.
- The Knights had one last shot, but Culpepper's final Hail Mary went unanswered. Final: 10-6, Auburn.
It's enough to make you physically sick.
The nation's seventh-best offense had five trips into the red zone and came away with two field goals and three turnovers.
Daunte Culpepper finished 24/37 for 182 yards and 4 interceptions, plus the critical lost fumble. He was also sacked seven times. It was the worst game he played in his sublime 1998 campaign. Had things been different that day, it could have been his Heisman moment.
But wait, there's more: UCF finished the game with a nearly two-to-one advantage in time of possession (38:14 to 21:46) and ran 27 more plays. They were either tied or led the game for 59:03.
"They deserved to win the game," admitted Oliver after the game. No kidding.
Of all the close calls UCF had against the likes of Georgia, South Carolina, Clemson, and others in the '90s and early 2000s, this one had to hurt the most. Auburn was ripe for the picking, seemingly doing everything in their power to hand UCF the game, and the Knights let it slip away.
It was UCF's second and last loss of 1998. As we now know, due to a series of unfortunate events on the final day of the season that year, UCF got bumped out of a provisional bid to the Oahu Bowl, and would not reach its first bowl game until 2005.
But bigger than that, it was a classic case of a game that would have meant a hell of a lot more to UCF than it meant to Auburn back then.