Florida football Coach Charley Pell stood beneath the stands at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, fuming. "I hope some way, somehow, there's justice found for those officials," he said angrily. "This has happened here twice in a row." In the aftermath of his team's 28-21 loss to Auburn Saturday—a defeat that all but flattened the previously unbeaten Gators' hopes for their first Southeastern Conference title—Pell was lashing out at referees and Auburn coaches and all the strange and unsavory happenings in what he called "a bad week for college football and the conference." Pell felt his team had been set up, cheated and slandered. "It tastes bad," he said.
This had been billed as the most important Florida-Auburn game ever, a matchup between the fourth-ranked Gators, off to their best start (6-0-1) in 17 years, and the seventh-rated Tigers (6-1), who were going after their first SEC championship since 1957, when Shug Jordan coached them to a national championship. In recent weeks Auburn had tuned up its wishbone offense, which had stalled miserably in the Tigers' 20-7 loss to Texas in September, while Florida had rolled along behind the SEC's top rushing tandem—sophomores Neal Anderson (625 yards) and John L. Williams (400 yards)—and the passing of senior Quarterback Wayne Peace.
Added to all that was the undisguised ill feeling between the two teams. Auburn players still seethed about what they swore was an incorrect—and crowd-influenced—ruling on a late-game fumble in Gainesville, Fla. a year ago; officials gave the ball to Florida on the play, setting up the deciding field goal in a 19-17 Gator victory. "That one has stuck in our kids' craw," said Tiger Coach Pat Dye. Florida, meanwhile, remembered its last visit to Auburn, in 1981, a 14-12 Tiger win in which a fourth-quarter, 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown was whistled back by a referee who later admitted he'd blown the call.
Anger rose to an even higher pitch at midweek when Auburn players started publicly discussing the Gators' style of play. "They late-hit and spear and shake fingers at you for intimidation," said Tiger Halfback Bo Jackson. "I don't think they're as good a team as they claim to be." Jackson's teammates spoke similarly of Florida, as have other Gator opponents this year. Pell would later claim that Auburn's comments were part of a Dye-abolical plot to bias the judgment of Saturday's officials.
As for Dye, he was concerned about Jackson, a talented sophomore, who was still feeling the effects of a weeklong virus, and his senior running mate, Lionel James, who was nursing a painfully injured finger, having pinched his left hand in a folding chair in the locker room just minutes before kickoff. The 6'10", 222-pound Jackson and the 5'7", 166-pound James are Big Train and Little Train; when they don't roll, Auburn doesn't.
But in the first half, the Tigers went cannonballing along. Jackson blasted through the left side on Auburn's first possession and went 55 yards for a touchdown, and James, his fingers heavily taped, darted 17 yards for another score late in the second quarter. Meanwhile, the Tigers' highly regarded defensive line was holding Williams and Anderson to a total of only six yards on five carries. At halftime, Auburn led 21-7 on the scoreboard; the Gators led five (for 39 yards) to one (five yards) in penalties.
Midway through the third quarter came The Play. After a first-and-goal snap at the Auburn eight, Anderson cut a path over left tackle toward what seemed a sure Gator TD. But at some point between the one-yard line and the goal—or so officials ruled—Tiger Cornerback Jimmie Warren jarred the ball loose from behind, sending it bouncing out of the end zone. No touchdown. Loss of possession. Pell was apoplectic in protest.
Auburn was given the ball on its own 20. Not surprisingly, the Tigers turned to Jackson, who finished the day with 196 yards on 16 carries. Such is Jackson's athleticism that he has hit 500-foot home runs, which drew a $100,000 contract offer from the Yankees, and qualified for the NCAA track and field indoor championships by running a 6.18 60-yard dash. Now he shot through a hole in the left side, cut right and sped 80 yards for a TD. Instead of trailing 21-14, Florida was suddenly behind 28-7.
And nothing could save the Gators. Not even a fourth-quarter rally in which Peace pitched Florida to TDs on two consecutive drives. Peace finished the day with terrific stats: 29 of 41 and 336 passing yards. But Williams and Anderson ended with only 70 yards between them, 100 shy of their combined average. Also, Florida was hit with 10 penalties and lost three fumbles—Pell disputed almost all of those 13 calls.
Auburn's win left the Tigers in a tie with Georgia for the SEC lead at 4-0, a game ahead of Florida and Alabama, each 3-1. This week it's Florida-Georgia, next week it's Georgia-Auburn, and on Dec. 3 it's Auburn-Alabama. Late Saturday, that scheduling had Dye speaking fondly of his school's new and heated rival. "I'm a Florida fan now," he said with a smile. "I wish 'em all the luck in the world against Georgia. Go, Gators!"