The Road To The 1986 Cotton Bowl: Texas A&M & Auburn

Texas A&M hadn’t gotten the old Southwest Conference’s Cotton Bowl bid in 18 years. Auburn had the Heisman Trophy winner in Bo Jackson and were looking to vindicate themselves after a disappointing regular season. Here’s a look back at the paths these two future SEC West rivals took through the 1985 college football season, to an ultimate New Year’s Day meeting in Dallas at the 1986 Cotton Bowl.

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The Aggies had made a big splash after the 1981 season when they hired Pitt head coach Jackie Sherrill for the then-staggering amount of over $250,000 per year. A&M hadn’t been to a major bowl game since that Cotton Bowl trip following the 1967 season, and in Sherrill’s first three years they went 16-16-1 with no bowl trips. Expectations weren’t any higher for 1985, as they opened the season unranked.

But Sherrill was compiling some explosive talent in the backfield. The top three running backs on the 1985 team—Anthony Toney, Roger Vick and Keith Woodside would each be chosen in the first three rounds of the NFL draft over the next three seasons. Toney’s 845 yards in ’85 was third-best in the run-heavy SWC, while Vick’s 754 was fifth in the conference.

Kevin Murray would be the SWC’s best quarterback, leading the league in passing yards (1,965), completion percentage (59%) and yards-per-attempt (7.8). His 251 pass attempts were the most of any conference quarterback, and the primary target was Jeff Nelson, whose 51 catches and 651 yards both led the league.

The Aggie defense was anchored by All-American linebacker Johnny Holland, and defensive back Kip Corrington intercepted five passes in ’85.

Texas A&M got a stiff test to the open the year, as Alabama came to College Station. The Tide were ranked 20th at the time and ended the season 8-2-1. When the Aggies lost 23-10, it seemed like another mediocre year was at hand. Beating UL-Monroe and Tulsa, then escaping lowly Texas Tech 28-27, didn’t change that impression.

The offense unleashed against another bad team in Houston, a 43-16 blowout, but the good vibes from that win were quickly given back in a 20-15 loss at 14th-ranked Baylor. The Aggies blew out Rice, an SWC team at the time and the perennial cellar-dweller. If nothing else, Texas A&M at least looked on track for some sort of bowl invitation as the record stood at 5-2 going into November.

Baylor was setting the pace in the SWC with a 5-0 conference record, while Texas A&M joined Arkansas, Texas and SMU at 3-1. The Aggies came with SMU on November 2 would start the filtering out process.

A&M pulled out a 19-17 win and headed into a bye week. On November 9, Arkansas did everyone a favor by beating Baylor. There were now four teams with one league loss and the Aggies still had two of them—Arkansas and Texas—coming up.

The home game with Arkansas was under the lights, and the A&M defense forced four turnovers. Murray threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Vick and they held a 10-0 lead deep into the fourth quarter. The Razorbacks got a touchdown with three minutes left, but the critical two-point conversion was stopped and the Aggies closed out a 10-6 win.

Now it was a three-way tie for first. Texas A&M took care of business at TCU with a 53-6 rout. The Baylor-Texas game was the same day and the Aggies desperately needed a Longhorn win. That’s what they got. The race was now a dead heat between Texas & Texas A&M and they were going to play in College Station on Thanksgiving Night.

It was the first time since 1943 this great rivalry game had a Cotton Bowl trip on the line. Texas got the ball and got a nice drive going early, getting to a 1st-and-goal on the 4-yard line. Texas A&M’s defense came up with a goal-line stand.

The momentum shift was dramatic and a tidal wave pushed the Aggies forward. Vick ran for 92 yards, Toney ran for 79 more and the rout began immediately following the defensive stand. Texas A&M won 42-10 and that big contract to Sherrill was at last vindicated. They were going to the Cotton Bowl ranked #11 in the nation.

Pat Dye had revived the Auburn program and they had just missed a national title in 1983. The Tigers came out in 1984 as the preseason #1 team, but disappointed with a four-loss season, including a loss to Alabama that cost them a Sugar Bowl trip. Jackson was now in his senior year and expectations were again high, as Auburn was ranked #2 to start the season.

Jackson would live up to his billing. He rushed for nearly 1,800 yards, 17 touchdowns and even with his heavy workload, still averaged 6.4 yards-per-attempt, third-best in the SEC. Bo won the Heisman Trophy in one of the closest votes in history, edging out Iowa quarterback Chuck Long.

When Jackson did need a breather, Brent Fullwood came in and rushed for 684 yards, including an SEC-best 7.4 yards-per-attempt. Tommie Agee, a tough between-the-tackles runner, added 400 more.

All these horses in the backfield were necessary, because Auburn could not throw the football. Pat Washington only attempted 122 passes for the season, only completed 46 percent and only got 6.3 yards-per-attempt off those throws.

The Auburn defense had some ballhawks in the secondary, with Tom Powell and Kevin Porter combining for eleven interceptions. Punter Lewis Colbert got some All-American support. Even without the passing game, Dye’s formula of an explosive running attack, opportunistic defense and strong punting game could win games.

Auburn opened with a rout of UL-Lafayette and then beat a pretty good Southern Miss team 29-18. Oklahoma, the preseason #1 team, didn’t open its season until September 28, and Auburn elevated to the top spot by the time they went to Tennessee on that day.

Things came undone in Knoxville. The Vols were unranked, but this was a program much like Texas A&M—they had made a big splash when they hired a former Pitt coach, in this case Johnny Majors, and 1985 was the year they were ready to cash in. But the time the bowls were over, Tennessee would be a top five team, and their coming out party was this game, a 38-20 rout that sent Auburn plummeting to #14.

The Tigers bounced back with a 41-0 win over a subpar Ole Miss team and then traveled to play Florida State. The Seminoles were on their way to an 8-3 season and this game would be Auburn’s best of the season.

Bo got the party started early in the game with a 53-yard touchdown run. He would rush for 176 yards on the day and would add a 35-yard scoring jaunt. Auburn led 31-27 in the fourth quarter and then simply blew it open. The defense scored twice on Pick-6’s, the final was 59-27 and it vaulted them back into the national Top 10.

A tough 17-14 victory at a good Georgia Tech team was next, then a 21-9 win at home against mediocre Mississippi State. The start of November brought Florida to town. The Gators were on probation, but ranked #2 in the nation. Auburn lost 21-10, effectively ending their SEC title hopes.

They bounced back with a 35-10 rout of lowly East Carolina and then went to Athens to meet 12th-ranked Georgia. The Bulldogs were still hoping to edge out Tennessee for the Sugar Bowl berth, and had the third-ranked rush defense in the nation. It would be strength on strength between the hedges.

Bo had plenty of strength. He ran for 121 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown run. The Tiger defense stopped Georgia on fourth down four times, all in scoring territory. Auburn forced four turnovers and blocked a field goal. They won 24-10 and were #7 in the polls.

The regular season still ended on a bad note. Auburn lost to Alabama 25-23 on a last-second field goal and only the fact that bowl bids were locked up in advance of the regular season ending in those days, got the Tigers to the Cotton Bowl. But it was a needed chance for redemption. They had ended the regular season at #16, had lost to their archrival, but could still get a major bowl victory if they played well in Dallas.

It started well for Auburn. Jackson scored on a five-yard touchdown run, then caught a swing pass from Washington and went 73 yards for a score. But Murray was playing exceptionally well, and would end up throwing for 292 yards, then a Cotton Bowl record. Texas A&M led 21-14 going into the fourth quarter.

With twelve minutes left, the sequence of plays for which this game is remembered went down. Auburn had first-and-goal on the six-yard line. Three straight times, Jackson took the ball, but was only able to get to the two-yard line. Dye called his number one more time. And one more time, he was stuffed.

Much like their season finale with Texas, the Aggies took over a game after a goal-line stand, albeit much later in this case. They scored two more touchdowns and for good measure, stopped Bo on fourth down one more time. The final was 36-16.

It was the first of three straight Cotton Bowl trips for Texas A&M, and the first of two wins in their conference’s showcase bowl game. Neither Auburn nor Bo were going anywhere either. The latter would become a two-sport legend with both the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Raiders before a hip injury ended his career. And Dye would keep Auburn in contention and in major bowls in the years ahead.