AUBURN, Ala. — Carlos Rogers is still hesitant to admit what could be considered an unpopular personal truth about the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
“For me, I don’t know if I should say it … but that’s like bigger than the Alabama game to me,” said Rogers, who grew up in Augusta, Ga. “A lot of my family are Georgia fans. It was always a big game for me.”
It’s still the case now, but it was especially so in 2004 when No. 3 Auburn (9-0) was preparing to face the No. 8 Bulldogs in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Tigers had suffered a particularly tough defeat in between the hedges in Athens the previous year. That 26-7 blowout still stung.
“We had put something together and we had high expectations in 2003,” former Tigers running back Ronnie Brown said. “And unfortunately things didn’t work out for us. Our expectations for 2004 were high. There was a lot on the line and there was a lot we were trying to accomplish as a football team.”
Similar to the what Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team will experience on Saturday, in 2004 the Iron Bowl was looming. But more importantly, championship hopes were on the line.
Auburn’s senior class, which included quarterback Jason Campbell and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams other stars, was determined to leave the Plains with a win against the Dawgs. And it had to be a good one.
Brown shared the same sentiments that Rogers had. Growing up in Cartersville, Ga., he didn’t fully understand the Auburn-Alabama rivalry.
“But I knew one thing,” Brown said. “Growing up in Georgia that game was very important. The week leading up to that game we kept that in mind. Growing up in Georgia and going back you want to have those bragging rights. That was something we kind of prided ourselves on, doing well in that game.”
Fifteen players on Tommy Tuberville’s ’04 squad were originally from Georgia. Countless more had been recruited by Georgia’s Mark Richt.
In the days leading up to the game Rogers scrounged for more than 20 tickets for friends and family. Fortunately, it would be well worth it.
Auburn struck first and then the senior defensive back’s big day got a little bigger when he picked off Georgia quarterback David Greene’s pass.
“Early in that game I had some really big tackles because the wide receiver was going inside and blocking our safeties,” Rogers recalls. “That made me fill the whole and I had some good tackles on the running back. Later that game, the wide receiver kind of stuttered like he was acting like he was going to block. It made me think that something wasn’t right.
“I didn’t just attack the line of scrimmage like it was a run play, I kind of shuffled back a little bit and it actually was kind of a stutter and go, acting like he was going to block and then go to the end zone. I read the play and made the play on the ball.”
Auburn headed to its locker room at halftime up 17-0. The evening didn’t get much better for the Bulldogs, either.
Jason Campbell found Brown in the end zone in the fourth quarter to add another score and Georgia finally put some points on the board. When the final seconds ran off the scoreboard it was technically officially Iron Bowl week, but the Tigers had some celebrating to do. After all, it was their third top ten win so far that season.
“That was one of our best games that year,” Rogers said. “We definitely celebrated.”
Auburn went on to finish 13-0, including a Sugar Bowl victory.
Now that he’s more familiar with the Iron Bowl, Brown is confident the Auburn-Alabama rivalry “the greatest rivalry out of any college football game.” But Georgia was always a physical game. It mattered — to some more than others.
“I mean to each their own,” Rogers said. “Some people look at it as it’s just another game. But when you have different things riding on the game, it’s not another game — whether you want to act like it or you want to say that before the game.”
This year it’s not simply another game. Not for Malzahn, who’s lost three in a row to Georgia, or to an Auburn team looking to build their College Football Playoff resume.
Even 13 years and professional careers later, it’s still a significant day for Brown, Rogers and others who at heart will always be Georgia kids.
Brown is now a sideline reporter for Auburn. Rogers will return to the Plains this weekend. Rogers, who played ten seasons in the NFL with Washington, Oakland and San Francisco will be recognized as a 2017 SEC Legend. He’s the honorary captain of the game. He’ll be the one addressing Malzahn’s team and riling the Tigers up before they take the field.
Rogers’ daughter, now 8 years old, will be there to watch it all unfold on her first trip back to Auburn. She likely won’t be disappointed in the atmosphere, either. Jordan-Hare will be packed to the brim. It’s expected to be electric.
“At the end of the day it’s a really big game,” Rogers said. “It’s going to be bigger than the Clemson game, especially being that they’re No. 1. That makes it even bigger. So they have a lot riding on the game.”
But sure, go ahead. If it makes you feel more comfortable, believe that it’s just four more quarters of football. But really …
“No,” Rogers said. “It’s just not that simple.”
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