It's a shame that this Auburn team came together in the Year of the Cornhusker, because the Tigers are tough and talented enough to win a national championship themselves. Well, perhaps next season. Auburn has a jazz dancer at cornerback, a whiz kid at linebacker and as many as six future pros on the defensive line. And Auburn runs a fine-tuned, old-fashioned triple-option wishbone with a quarterback who strums easy-listening songs on his guitar, a left halfback who plays the role of a big brother, though he's only 5'7" and 171 pounds, and a talented right halfback with the potential to be the second-best runner ever to wear No. 34 in the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers are also a team with a mission—they've dedicated the season to Fullback Greg Pratt, who collapsed and died on Aug. 20, after a preseason conditioning drill. They're a team with a proven winner in Coach Pat Dye, who mixes in some merriment with all his militarism. Most significant, they're a team with something even mighty Nebraska doesn't have: a tough schedule.
Last Saturday, Auburn stared into the deepest, darkest pit of that schedule and didn't blink. It beat Georgia 13-7 on the road, walking out of Sanford Stadium with a 9-1 record, at least a share of the SEC title, a Sugar Bowl bid and pieces of the storied Sanford hedge in their teeth. Sugar Bowl officials won't officially tender their invitation until this weekend, but the white substance that the Tigers spread on the game ball Saturday was definitely not the drug of choice for today's athlete. Dye took the ball, grinned mischievously and licked off the sugar. Not too nutritious, but, oh, so delicious.
In New Orleans, Auburn most likely will face the winner of Saturday's Ohio State-Michigan game. Georgia, meanwhile, is still a good bet to play in the Cotton Bowl, probably against Texas. If the Bulldogs do meet the Longhorns, fans should bring plenty of NoDoz because that one could end up 3-2. You've all heard "How 'bout them Dawgs?" Well, "How 'bout them dogs?" must be a reference to Georgia's sluggish offense.
Words of praise are nevertheless in order for Coach Vince Dooley and his Bulldogs. "I still consider Georgia the Number Four team in the country," said Cornerback David King, the Tigers' gift to Auburn's Dance Theater. And when Nebraska, Texas or even Auburn falters next year or the year after, remember Georgia's consistency over the past few seasons. The Bulldogs are 40-2-1 in their last 43 regular-season games.
Befitting its tradition, Georgia was still fighting—or "hunkering down" as the locals like to say—even as it became obvious that Saturday was Auburn's day. From the opening kickoff until Georgia got possession with 3:35 remaining, the Tigers had outgained the Dawgs 359 yards to 94 and appeared to have one of the safest 13-0 leads imaginable. To that point Georgia Quarterback John Lastinger had completed only four of 12 passes for a measly 32 yards, had been booed by his own fans and had been replaced on occasion by sophomore backup Todd Williams. Lastinger has been a consistent winner the past two seasons more because of his equanimity than his physical talents.
Georgia's last-gasp, 80-yard TD drive cut the Tigers' lead to 13-7 with 2:11 showing on the clock. Never mind that the march also accounted for 48% of the Dawgs' total yardage for the game. When Bulldog Safety David Painter recovered the ensuing onside kick at the Georgia 46, the Dawgs were back in contention. But not for long. Georgia's final series lasted just four plays and netted minus six yards, thanks largely to Tiger Defensive End Quency Williams, who sacked Lastinger on first down, and to Linebacker Gregg Carr, who tackled freshman Fred Lane for a three-yard loss on third down. Carr, who finished with a team-high eight stops, is a civil engineering major with a 3.72 grade-point average and a cinch to be named Academic All-America. How 'bout them Tigers?
Auburn's return to respectability was all but assured the day that Dye, an assistant under Bear Bryant at Alabama from 1965 to 73, arrived on campus in January 1981 with an impressive 54-23-1 record after six years as head coach at East Carolina and one at Wyoming. Dye's methods contrast sharply with the easygoing regime of his predecessor, Doug Barfield, who was 29-25-1 from 1976 to '80 and never beat Alabama. Dye, now 23-10 at Auburn, defeated the Tide in his second try. If he can beat 'Bama again at Birmingham on Dec. 3, the Tigers will have their first undisputed SEC title since 1957, when they also won the national championship.
"I'll never forget Coach Dye's first meeting," says Auburn Tackle Pat Arrington. "He walked in and said fiat out, 'I'm going to the Sugar Bowl, and anybody who doesn't want to go with me can leave.' By the time that first spring practice was over, about 30 guys had left. That's how tough it was. Believe me, I thought about quitting every night."
"I'd been a linebacker under Coach Barfield," says Dowe Aughtman, the noseguard in the Tigers' 5-2 defense. "Coach Dye took one look at me and said, 'My linebackers are 215 and run a 4.8 40.' Well, I weighed about 240 at the time and couldn't run less than a five. I thought my career was over until, luckily, I found a new position."
Aughtman is now part of what may be the best college defensive line. He and fellow seniors Doug Smith, Donnie Humphrey and Williams, along with juniors Ben Thomas and John Dailey, all have pro potential. The only consolation for the opposition is that all six can't play at once. At 6' 6", 275 pounds, Smith is the most fearsome. In the first quarter he stripped Lastinger of the ball, and Williams recovered at the Georgia 24. Five plays later Lionel (Little Train) James circled right end for a four-yard touchdown to put the Tigers ahead 7-0. James's running mate, sophomore Bo Jackson, who would rush for 115 yards on 18 carries, had set up the score on the previous play by mowing over three would-be tacklers in the backfield and continuing around left end for eight yards.
The 6'1", 229-pound Jackson has matured a lot since last season, when he was moody, inconsistent—and almost gone. One evening in November, Jackson left his dormitory at 6 p.m., walked to the Greyhound station in Auburn and looked longingly at the buses that pulled out for his hometown, Bessemer, Ala. Finally, at 2 a.m., a bus station employee asked him to leave.
"I was fed up with everything, the practices, the pressure, the coaches nagging at you," he says. "I just couldn't accept the way it was different from high school, where the coaches had to put up with my selfishness. I honestly don't know whether I really wanted to get on a bus. But I got thrown out of the bus station, and the next morning I went and told my coach [Running Back Coach Bud Casey] the whole story." Casey was sympathetic. He then instructed Jackson to do 25 "stadiums," which are sprints up the 69-row bleachers at Jordan-Hare Stadium, as punishment for violating curfew. Jackson got the message that this was college, not high school.
Jackson's adjustment has been made easier by the counsel of James. "He's my little big brother," says Jackson. "I look up to him." James's blocking has always been an inspiration to Jackson, not to mention an important reason for Jackson's glowing 6.9-yard 1983 rushing average. In return, Jackson has worked hard on his own blocking to help bolster James's stats, and his efforts have paid off. James, who ran for 84 yards on 13 carries against Georgia, is averaging 6.3 yards per carry this season. On James's TD, Jackson got the key block, cutting down Bulldog Cornerback Daryll Jones. After the score Jackson ran over and gently lifted James off the ground, a small ritual that they perform after either one gets a touchdown.
In the second quarter Jackson put the Tigers in position for their next score, a 21-yard field goal by Al Del Greco, with a 20-yard gallop around left end that showed the wishbone at its best. Auburn runs a true triple option, which allows Quarterback Randy Campbell to read the defense before deciding whether to leave the ball in the belly of Fullback Tommie Agee, the first option on most plays, or to take it out and either run himself or toss back to James or Jackson. On this play he took the ball out and made a long, left-handed pitchout to Jackson. "It took me a long while to learn how to do that because my right arm is a lot stronger than my left," says Campbell. "In this offense we have to make some long pitches. It's not a flip with the thumb down like in the veer or other offenses. This is like shooting in basketball."
On another option play later in the second quarter, two Georgia defenders converged on Jackson and ignored Campbell. So he squirted through untouched for 21 yards to the Bulldog 41. Five plays later Del Greco kicked a 41-yard field goal that gave the Tigers their 13-0 halftime lead.
As it so often has, Georgia's superb defense toughened in the second half, holding Auburn scoreless and allowing it only 123 yards. In fact, the best player on the field last Saturday was not Jackson, James or Smith, but Bulldog Linebacker Knox Culpepper, who was in on 21 tackles. And the best player nor on the field—most of the time anyway—was Terry Hoage, the Dawgs' All-America rover-back. Hoage had missed the previous week's 10-9 win over Florida and didn't practice for the Georgia-Auburn game because of a badly sprained right ankle. Before the opening kickoff he was in his customary position, wind-milling the crowd into a frenzy, but the pain in his ankle was too much even for the gutsy Hoage, and he played only a couple of series.
Auburn now has a three-week break before facing 'Bama. The Tigers deserve a rest. They have survived one of the country's toughest schedules—six opponents were in SI's Top 20 when Auburn played them—with only one breakdown, a 20-7 loss to Texas on Sept. 17. Since then Auburn has won eight in a row. But nothing is tougher than beating Georgia in Athens; where the fans deeply believe that their Dawgs can't be beaten "between the hedges" that surround the field. Jackson was quietly chewing on a piece of that plant life after the game when someone asked him what it tasted like.
"Tastes like dog meat," Jackson said with a smile.