Fun facts to know and tell about the Florida Gators now that they are 7-0-1 and (maybe) America's No. 1 college football team:
1) Their coach, Galen Hall, is not actually bald. He just has his mohawk on inside out. This, coupled with a Michelin man physique, makes him look a little like Fred Mertz. His wife (Elaine, not Ethel) calls him "gorgeous." Rival coaches call him a genius. You can call him undefeated. As a head coach, he's 15-0-1 over two seasons.
2) Their star quarterback, sophomore Kerwin Bell, drives a slick sports car, just like everybody else's star quarterback. Only difference is, Bell paid for his. You see, Bell wasn't recruited. He was a walk-on from outside Mayo, Fla. (pop. 891). You can call him the Throwin' Mayoan.
3) Their arrest record is almost as long as their current unbeaten streak (18). The NCAA caught Florida violating the bejesus out of the rules under former coach Charley Pell and stuck the Gators with three years of probation. So here they are, Public Enemy No. 1, and maybe No. 1 period. Whether they have done it without exceeding the salary cap is another question entirely.
Anyway, on Saturday the Gators traveled to Auburn's Jordan (say it JERden) Hare Stadium, where they had won only twice since 1927, and came away with a nervy 14-10 victory. Florida's triumph was impressive enough to vault the Gators past Penn State, an unimpressive winner over Boston College, and into the No. 1 slot in SI's Top 20. Although Florida was Auburn's better—the Gators committed no turnovers and came from behind to win—Tiger fans will be wondering over their mourning grits how things might have been had tailback Bo (Where'd He Go?) Jackson not gone to the sidelines. Once again, mishap visited Jackson in a critical game. He finished with only 48 yards (152 under his average), leaving just before halftime with a bruised thigh. "A helmet caught me between my thigh pad and knee pad," said Jackson, rubbing that very spot.
He returned for three plays in the second half, but "it spasmed back up again" and he left the game for good. His replacement was Brent Fullwood, who's getting used to this. Jackson pulled himself out of Auburn's only other loss, 38-20 to Tennessee on Sept. 28, with a bruised knee. Sigh. If Jackson wins the Heisman Trophy, perhaps Fullwood can pick it up for him.
"Seems like Bo has a tendency to leave the ball game when the going gets tough," said Florida linebacker Leon Pennington. "I'm not saying anything about Bo. It's just that, in football, you're going to get banged up. Sometimes, you've got to play with pain."
Tell Florida about it. Tailback Neal Anderson started the game on a sore knee and limped off the field in the first quarter, but he returned. Bell guided the Gators to the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter on a twisted knee. Shoot, the whole Florida program has played with pain all season—the ouch that goes with knowing you have no hope for a bowl game or the SEC title. Still, in a year when the Shawnee Sheriffs have knocked other outlaws out of the saddle—SMU, USC and Illinois haven't been the same since they've gone on probation—Florida keeps on kicking up dust in the posse's face. So what gives, Hoss?
"We want the national championship," says Bell.
"You know why?" says Pennington. "Because they took everything else."
Could happen. If Florida wins the rest of its games, it will have beaten eight of last season's bowl teams, including Miami, LSU, Tennessee, Auburn and, still to come, Georgia and Florida State. O.K., O.K., the tie. The only pimple on an otherwise flawless Florida face so far is that 28-28 game with lowly Rutgers. In fact, that tie tells more about what's right with Hall than what's wrong with the Gators. Florida led 28-7 in the third quarter when Hall inserted second-string quarterback Rodney Brewer, mostly because Hall didn't want to embarrass Rutgers coach Dick Anderson, who's an old Penn State teammate. Brewer's first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Hall, not wanting to shatter young Brewer's self-esteem, let him stay in the game. On the next series Brewer fumbled on the Scarlet Knight 12. The next time the Gators got the ball, he threw a second interception, which Rutgers converted into another touchdown to make the score 28-20. By then, the moon's pull had shifted and the Scarlet Knights worked it to an imponderable tie. "Galen is so sensitive about people's feelings," says Elaine Hall. "He doesn't want to hurt anybody."
Since that snafu, Florida has been positively Schwarzeneggerish, thanks largely to Hall. "Galen's an offensive genius," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden has said. Says Auburn defensive coordinator Frank Orgel, "Galen gets his players to play hard. Hard as any coach I've seen. If that makes him a genius, I guess he is."
He also gets them to laugh, something Pell had little interest in doing. "It was like living in a barracks with Coach Pell," says Pennington. "He'd sometimes go off his rocker." Imagine Pell's chemical combustions if he saw Hall allowing his players to drink the occasional beer, teaching them card tricks, even singing after practice.
When these gleeful Gators arrived at Auburn, the Tigers didn't know whether to swing at them or dance with them. They swung. And damn near hit. Against a buffalo herd rush, the Throwin' Mayoan said he was "rattled," at first. But then Bell got going. Trailing 10-7 with less than 10 minutes to play, he took Florida through the din and from its own 39 to the Auburn eight. "It was so loud," Bell said, "only my center and my guards could hear my count. Everybody else went on the snap." Most of that drive came on crisp passing and a crowd-quieting 36-yard draw to running back John L. (the L doesn't stand for anything, but he insists on it) Williams.
Two plays later, Bell threw wideout Ray McDonald a down-but-not-out eight-yard touchdown ball, precious little of which was held by McDonald's fingers. Florida led 14-10. "That was one of the best catches I've ever made in my life," McDonald said. "And I'm talking from pee-wee all the way up."
Not only that, but think of this: Auburn hadn't given up a TD in the SEC since September. Now, in one afternoon, Bell and McDonald had tag-teamed for two (the first was a three-yarder), and two was just enough. The Tigers got the ball back twice more and came up with but one first down and no points.
Talk about an intoxicating feeling. Here was Bell, who grew up on a tobacco and chicken farm, where he tossed post patterns to his sister, Sonja, and dreamed of nothing more than someday earning a spot on the Florida traveling squad. Suddenly he was the winning quarterback at dread Auburn and the headpin of the No. 1 team (maybe) in the land. "This was our bowl game," he said.