So there was the entire Southeastern Conference, waiting to find out which of its teams deserved those lofty national rankings, and then this whole kissing-your-sister thing started. First Auburn, which was rated a somewhat suspect third in the nation, was tied by 17th-ranked Tennessee when Vols' tailback Reggie Cobb pierced Auburn's stouthearted defense with a seven-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run that set up Phil Reich's extra-point kick. The final was 20-20, a perfect vision for the Vols, who may have positioned themselves to win the conference title, and a disaster for the Tigers, who, simply by not winning, may have lost something really big—like a crack at the national championship.
Barely two hours after that no-decision, Ohio State and Louisiana State—ranked fifth and ninth, respectively—ended up in a 13-13 finish in Baton Rouge, a demoralizing blow for the LSU Tigers, who lost a chance to gain a psychological advantage over the Auburn Tigers for the rest of the season. Louisiana State had a perfectly miserable second half, losing a fumble and throwing three interceptions. About the only good thing to happen to LSU after blowing a 10-3 halftime lead was defensive end Karl Dunbar's block of a 47-yard field goal attempt by the Buckeyes' Matt Frantz on the final play of the game. "I felt something hit my hand," said Dunbar afterward. "Then I looked around and saw that ball flying off like a duck."
These two games—leaving four unbeaten teams bruised but still unbeaten—followed by one day the death of former Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, who, legend has it, coined the aphorism, "A tie is like kissing your sister." Until a videotape appears proving someone else said it first—Neil Kinnock, maybe?—you have to give it to Duffy. Of course, there are sisters and there are sisters. "I have a good-looking sister," said LSU quarterback Tom Hodson after killing two Tiger drives by throwing interceptions in the final 2½ minutes. "I don't mind kissing her. This feeling is a lot worse."
Folks around the LSU campus might have had an inkling that this rare home day game—TV dictated the 2:30 p.m. starting time—wasn't going to turn out well. Louisiana State almost always plays at Tiger Stadium at night, and no wonder. LSU is 0-4-2 since 1980 in games played in the Baton Rouge daylight. Late Saturday afternoon a small plane flew over the stadium pulling a streamer saying DAY GAMES STINK. There's no telling what Ohio State made of all this. The Buckeyes headed back to the Big Ten, where their games don't usually mean much until the annual bloodletting with Michigan.
October 4, 1987
While LSU was left to ponder how it might defend its SEC crown against those other Tigers, whom they won't meet this season—in fact, these two big cats haven't played since 1981—Tennessee sounded ready to pucker up again. "This was more satisfying than kissing my sister," reckoned Tennessee coach Johnny Majors. "We had worked too hard to lose."
By not going for two points with 1:20 to play after Cobb's second TD of the game, Majors was peering down the SEC road, which happens to be paved more gently for his Vols (no Georgia, no LSU) than it is for Auburn (no Ole Miss, no Kentucky, no mercy). Gambling would have been foolish; in the past 31 years no loser of the Tennessee-Auburn matchup has won the conference. And, as Majors told the Volunteers after the game, teams with at least one loss have won the title the past two years, which presumably gives his as-yet-undefeated charges some breathing room. In any case, that was the rationale the Tennessee people were eagerly propounding to the press after the game.
"You've got to look at it all objectively," said Vol quarterback Jeff Francis. The Auburn players weren't inclined toward objectivity. "I don't know why they're so happy," said the Tigers' all-SEC defensive tackle, Tracy Rocker. "It ain't so happy over here."
Auburn had wanted much more than a tie. In eerily similar circumstances two years ago, the Tigers had headed to Knoxville's Neyland Stadium as the top-ranked team in the nation, only to be crushed 38-20. After finishing that season 8-4, Tiger coach Pat Dye redesigned his offense. That Auburn team had lived and died with Bo Jackson and the run; this one is centered around Jeff Burger and the pass.
The Volunteers evidently felt Burger, a senior who entered the game with a better efficiency rating than any other major college quarterback, had not been sufficiently tested in Auburn's first two games. "The thing is," said Tennessee defensive tackle Mark Hovanic, "he hasn't seen any pressure yet." He hasn't seen any pressure the way Robert Bork hasn't seen any pressure. Over the summer the Auburn Academic Honesty Committee had 1) found Burger guilty of plagiarizing in an industrial psychology paper on executive stress and 2) suspended him for two quarters, only to 3) have the ruling overturned and Burger's eligibility restored by the university's vice-president for academic affairs. If that wasn't enough, it was then revealed that a month earlier Burger had 4) gotten into a fight at about 4 a.m. outside an Auburn restaurant where he 5) was arrested on charges of public intoxication and carrying a concealed weapon. He 6) pleaded guilty to the weapons rap, and 7) Auburn Municipal Court fined Burger $50 plus court costs.
Burger was so besieged by the press and fans during all this that he chose to live for a time at a hunting camp 10 miles outside town. But his troubles may have served to bring the Tigers closer together. "I found a lot of people standing behind me and beside me," says Burger. "The pressure's off now because I'm back where I belong."
Though Burger's woes are mostly behind him—an "academic dishonesty" citation will be expunged from his official transcript when he successfully repeats the industrial psychology course—Tennessee had not forgotten. During practice last week, Vol backup quarterback Kyle Horner, pretending to be Burger, pasted his jersey with tags reading PLAGIARISM, CONVICT and CHEATING IS FUNDAMENTAL.
When Saturday's game began, the Vols got serious and, using a varied menu of defenses, grounded Burger. He completed 16 of 27 passes for just 129 yards and threw a third-quarter interception to Victor Peppers that set up an eight-yard touchdown run by Cobb. That score gave Tennessee a 10-6 lead. But as the Vols drifted into deeper zones and looser pass coverages, Auburn went back to basics. Rushing on 23 of 27 plays, the Tigers fashioned TD marches of 80 and 40 yards and led 20-10 with 11:33 left.
The Auburn defense is a Rocker-ribbed crew that pursues relentlessly. The Tigers had permitted a total of only three points in their first two games, but they gave up seven more than that to the Vols in the third quarter. After Tennessee plodded 55 yards to pull within a touchdown on Reich's 24-yard field goal with 7:46 remaining, it seemed likely that Auburn's defense would be able to hold off any further incursions.
The decisive (well, almost decisive) drive of the game began with 6:12 left, the ball on the Vol 44 and Francis, a junior, in the role he seems born to play. He had already demonstrated grace under pressure this season, chilling Iowa with two late drives in Tennessee's 23-22 Kickoff Classic victory. Francis looks and sounds rather like Dudley Do-Right, with courage to match. "Where else do you want to be?" Francis asks. "We're down a touchdown, we've got the ball, and time's running out in the biggest game all of us have played in."
Francis connected on four of five passes for 38 yards, including, on third and 14, a scrambling dump-off to fullback Charles Wilson that set up a fourth and a foot at the Auburn 7. That set up Cobb, a gifted 205-pound redshirt freshman, to find a hole where none seemed to exist and surge into the end zone. "I would have never thought they could take the ball and drive it twice on us in the fourth quarter," said the disheartened Dye. "Not on this defense."
The Tigers began their final possession on their own 20 with 1:20 left and three timeouts remaining. They wasted one timeout with the clock already stopped; a tired tailback had to be removed from the game. The final one disappeared with 19 seconds to go, when an intentional incompletion would have done just as well.
With the clock ticking down, Burger reached the Vols' 33 on a nine-yard completion. Auburn needed only to make the snap and kill the clock with an out-of-bounds pass. That would have set the stage for a 50-yard field goal attempt by freshman Win Lyle, who had already kicked two from that neighborhood. But Vol linebacker Keith DeLong, who had a game-high 16 tackles, smartly walked de long way back to the line of scrimmage as the clock ran out.
In Baton Rouge, Ohio State coach Earle Bruce felt that the officials took de long way of marking the ball with time running out. Ohio State had put itself in position to win when cornerback Greg Rogan intercepted his second Hodson pass, on the LSU 45. The Buckeyes then drove to the 30, where they wanted desperately to run one more play from scrimmage but instead were forced into their unsuccessful game-ending field goal attempt. "They're seven nice guys from the South," was Bruce's description of the all-SEC refereeing crew. "They wouldn't get away from the ball so we could run another play. For some reason they were marking the ball fast on one side and not too fast on the other."
Costly as the final interception nearly was for LSU, it was one Flodson threw with 2:03 to play that cost the Tigers a victory. On second-and-seven on the Ohio State eight, Flodson tried to force the ball to receiver Wendell Davis for a touchdown. It flew right into Rogan's hands. The misthrown pass deprived the Tigers of an almost certain field goal by David Brown-dyke, who had already made three-pointers of 20 and 40 yards. "I wanted to get rid of it, and I got rid of it in the wrong place," said Hodson.
And now the big question was what was the right place for these teams in the national—and in the case of the Vols and all those Tigers, in the SEC—standings. "You don't know whether to think of it as a loss or a win or just feel confusion," said Rocker. "Maybe at the end of the year we'll know whether it was a win or a loss."