An absolutely flawless performance

By Tom Mattingly

It was a day—Sept. 27, 1980—Auburn fans would like to forget.

Tennessee fans, on the other hand, still remember it well.

It was Tennessee’s second time to play in Auburn, after years of playing Auburn’s “home games” in Birmingham, at Legion Field.

The Vols had first played at Auburn in 1974, losing 21-0. The 1976 and 1978 games, both losses, were back at Legion Field.

For Auburn, the 1980 contest was a “dedication game,” highlighting the addition of 11,000 seats, a new press box, and club-level seating to Jordan-Hare Stadium. At the time, Tiger publicists billed it as the “largest stadium in the state of Alabama.”

Auburn was 2-0, ranked No. 18 by AP coming in, with wins over TCU and Duke. The university honored its “Team of the Seventies,” but there were no Terry Beasleys or Pat Sullivans dressed out in orange and blue that day.

The final score was Tennessee 42, Auburn 0, in a performance head coach John Majors termed “absolutely flawless.” It was hard to tell which fan base was more shocked by the size of the margin.

A record crowd of 75,942 was in attendance, but the stadium cleared out rapidly in the third and fourth quarters, except on the Tennessee side. It was the Vols’ most dominant win over the Tigers in series history, eclipsing 28-point wins in 1956 (35-7) and 1966 (28-0) and a 26-point win in 1969 (45-19).

It was Auburn’s worst loss ever at home and the worst overall, dating to 1948 when Alabama laid a 55-0 haymaker on the Tigers.

Tennessee had lost its first games of the 1980 season by the narrowest of margins, 16-15 to Georgia and 20-17 to Southern Cal, both games at Neyland Stadium.

There had been a 35-23 win over Washington State the week before the trip to the Plains.

It was the second of three consecutive wins for the Vols over the Tigers, following a 35-17 win in 1979 and a 10-7 win over Pat Dye’s first Auburn squad a year later.

Tailback James Berry, known better these days as “Eric Berry’s father,” scored touchdowns on runs of 4, 3, and 3 yards. Quarterback Jeff Olszewski, who completed 11 consecutive passes at one critical juncture in the game, added another, and threw TD passes to tight ends Reggie Harper and Mike “Go” Cofer, each covering 11 yards. Tailback Terry Daniels rushed 21 times for 125 yards, part of 248 yards rushing for the Vols.

The Vols led 7-0 early and broke the game open with a 21-point second quarter, adding single tallies in the third and fourth quarters.

It was the first victory for the Vols in the state of Alabama since a 41-14 decision over Alabama at Legion Field in 1969.

It was the first time since 1966-67 that the Vols had knocked off Auburn in back-to-back seasons.

The Vols endured a barrage of oranges as they came onto the field for the game, not the first time that had happened, nor the last, but the unfriendly welcome seemed to galvanize the team.

George Cafego, the legendary Vol assistant coach, put the day’s events into proper perspective. After the game, he was seen snacking on an orange, maybe one that had been thrown at him earlier. That was his way of declaring victory over the boisterous Auburn crowd.

“These people down here don’t know you can eat these things,” George said. “They think the only thing you can do with ‘em is throw ‘em.”

Since Tennessee finished 5-6 in 1980, Tennessee historians have focused on other games taking place in ensuing seasons. This game is significant, however, being the first “big” road win of the Majors Era, deserving more consideration.

The “Auburn Nation’s” reaction to the loss infuriated Sports Information director David Housel, a true War Eagle loyalist.

“We at Auburn have always prided ourselves on being something special,” he wrote in the next week’s game program. “Alabama booed Richard Todd in 1975. Tennessee booed Jimmy Streater last year, and we booed Charles Thomas, one of our own, last week.

“The question is obvious. Are we really special anymore?”

The Vols and Auburn stopped playing every year after the 1991 season, ending the “Last Saturday in September” SEC hallmark game that each year separated the contenders from the pretenders.

The Vols would not win at Auburn again until 1998, a 17-9 victory in a national championship season.

It’s hard for many Vol fans to wake up on the final Saturday in September and realize the Vols are scheduled to play someone other than Auburn.

It just doesn’t seem right.

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