Daniel Carlson: Auburn’s Kick-Ass Kicker from Colorado Springs

An Academic Redneck Iron Bowl Preview

It’s time for Alabamians to make some serious decisions. No, I don’t mean the Roy Moore thing. I mean the Auburn-Alabama thing. On Saturday, November 25, 2017, the # 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide takes on the #6-ranked Auburn Tigers in the Iron Bowl, so fans of both teams face grave choices on game day. Guac or queso? Papa John’s or Pizza Hut? Buffalo Wild Wings or Zaxby’s? Which team shirts and outfits do we wear to generate the best luck? What clever trash-talking zingers can we deliver to our friends and family members rooting for the enemy that will shut them up but not be so mean-spirited that we bring down the wrath of the football gods on ourselves?

This is not superstitious hyperbole. We die-hard fans know how important it is to be in the emotional psychological, and spiritual zone the Saturday after Thanksgiving, just so we don’t blow it for our team. Disciplined mental training is a key element that helps us overcome adversity during the game if our team can’t score in the red zone or must mount a come-from-behind miracle win with two minutes left on the clock.

What do I do when my Auburn Tigers struggle? I sort of fall into the ancient ritual of ancestor worship. Well, not really worship per se. I just invoke the name of my late father and ask him to intercede on Auburn’s behalf: “Benny, please sashay on down those gold-paved streets, knock on Jesus’s mansion door, and politely request that the Lord and Savior help us kick the crap out of Alabama. Thanks, Daddy. See you soon.” This strategy worked in November 2013, when Auburn won the game 34-28 in that unforgettable “Kick Six” matchup. Auburn’s Chris Davis ran Bama’s failed 57-yard field goal attempt 109 yards to score with one second left on the clock. Whenever I’m feeling a little down and out, it lifts my spirits to watch a re-cap of that breathtaking play.

Unfortunately, Benny hasn’t been able to deliver since then. Auburn has lost the last three straight Iron Bowls. I suspect he got a “Welcome to the Pearly Gates” pass that he cashed in, being a new arrival to the heavenly ‘hood in 2013. But I also think the power structure in paradise may favor Alabama. Or at least the late Paul “Bear” Bryant has some kind of special advisory status on these matters. I also wonder if Auburn’s late coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan may be skipping some important meetings. As Steely Dan once said, “They got a name for the winners in the world. I want a name when I lose. They call Alabama the Crimson Tide. Call me Orange and Blue.” Or something like that.

It’s hard to argue with Bama’s record: sixteen national championships and thirty SEC titles. The Crimson Tide is a college football dream team. Auburn is also a legendary team, with two national championships and eight SEC titles, but its history is more as the Cinderella, come-from-behind team that overcomes adversity to prevail—the Seabiscuits of college football. Or the Tigers serve as the spoiler team that thwarts  Alabama’s chances for another championship.

Auburn almost never wins a game outright, so fans can check out and do laundry in the fourth quarter. We have to stick out a game to the bitter end because it’s quite possible they may win–or, alas, lose–the  game in the last half (or last minute). A few of my Auburn friends and I often quote Sofia Johnson’s line in The Color Purple to dramatize Auburn’s struggle to win: “All my life I had to fight.”

 Saturday’s game will probably prove no exception. Alabama is well-positioned to emerge this season with yet another national title. Auburn, which struggled early in the season with a loss to Clemson and then a heartbreaking defeat when LSU overcame a 20-point Auburn lead to win, rallied late in the season with a stunning 40-17 shellacking of rival Georgia, the number one-ranked team at that time.  The Tigers are contenders again.

If Auburn prevails, kicker Daniel Carlson will probably play a pivotal role. Carlson graduated from the Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, where he transitioned from a soccer player into a football place kicker. This season, Carlson became the SEC’s all-time leading scorer. He is a two-time finalist for the Lou Groza Award, given each year to the top place-kicker. The 2017 award finalists will be named today, and Carlson is a favorite to win this year.

Auburn is fortunate to have Carlson, since many of his family members are Alabama graduates and die-hard Crimson Tide fans. His grandmother was a Bama cheerleader. His grandfather played Alabama baseball. His mother was a student hostess/recruiter for Bear Bryant’s teams. His father played Crimson Tide tennis. Even the family dog’s name is Bama. Nevertheless, Daniel ended up at Auburn because Alabama coach Nick Saban passed on offering the young man a kicking scholarship. Bama’s loss is definitely Auburn’s gain. In addition, Daniel’s younger brother Anders is a freshman at Auburn and probably the next up-and-coming kicker. This generation of Carlson  family “turncoats” hope to do their parts to make sure that Auburn’s legacy isn’t relegated to being that “other team” in Alabama.

Of course, while Carlson is a reliable extra-point and field-goal kicker, he won’t be able to win Saturday’s game on his own. Auburn must mount an offense and score in the red zone, a task they’ve struggled with, because Alabama, led by quarterback Jalen Hurts, certainly will put points on the board. AU must take the field with a versatile offensive strategy that does more than rely on running back Kerryon Johnson to take the ball up the middle. Carlson can put the icing on the cake for Auburn, but the offense has to bake it first. If Auburn can score touchdowns, the Tigers can win.

In recent memory, kickers have been a source of angst for Tiger fans. Some of the pain we’ve chosen to block out. Many may remember the disappointing “wrong way Bo” loss of 1984, when Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson misheard the play call on fourth down with the ball on the one-yard line. Instead of going right with the play, Bo went left. Running back Brent Fullwood, who had the ball, got clobbered and knocked out of bounds, failing to score. Yet even though Bo took the fall for that infamous loss, field-goal kicker Robert McGinty missed a 42-yard field goal at the end of that game and ultimately blew Auburn’s final chance to win.

The following year, 1985, the Tigers thought they had the game in the bag until a late Bama rally gave the Tide’s Van Tiffin the chance at a 52-yard field goal that soared insolently through the uprights, giving Alabama a 25-23 win. That day, I was watching the game with my boyfriend, an Alabama fan. We had trash-talked each other so mercilessly that I actually wept—wept, I tell you!—at the disappointment and injustice of it all. (Needless to say, that relationship did not last.) Other Auburn fans and I feel something akin to PTFD (post-traumatic football disorder) at the mere mention of Tiffin’s name.

The only thing Daniel Carlson could do on Saturday to break my heart is pull a Robert McGinty and choke on a clutch opportunity to rack up three points. If he is in the position to kick a game-winning field goal and nails it, he could go a long way in erasing that bad Van Tiffin memory for Auburn fans. We are counting on you, Daniel. Otherwise, we may find ourselves using Rob Shneider’s line from Waterboy.

The Academic Redneck’s Iron Bowl Prediction: Auburn 38-Alabama 35. A Carlson field goal will put the Tigers over the top.