It was one of those awkward moments born of stalemates. Auburn coach Pat Dye had sought out Tennessee coach Johnny Majors and was merrily hugging his old friend as if they were at a wedding, rather than in the bowels of the Tigers' Jordan-Hare Stadium. In returning Dye's embrace, Majors appeared to be one of the bereaved at a wake.
What they had actually endured was the baptism, by conflagration, of a 19-year-old redshirt freshman quarterback named Stanley White, who played three quarters as if his first name were Snow, and the fourth as if it were Danny. It was White who got the Tigers into a 26-9 hole, and it was White who dug them out of it in time to forge a 26-26 tie.
He rallied Auburn by throwing three touchdown passes, two on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
"We threw everything but the kitchen sink at him," said Larry Lacewell, the Volunteers' defensive coordinator. "He never flinched."
"There ain't no damn fear in him," Dye said of White. "He became a man tonight."
That White is ready for his first electric razor was about the only thing determined last weekend in the Loveliest Village of the Plain. The game had been expected to shed light on who would represent the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. Although it was not yet October, in many minds the quest for the conference title had already come down to a two-horse race.
Florida had been eliminated by an NCAA probation; LSU had made lowly Vanderbilt's season by losing 24-21 to the Commodores on Sept. 22; Georgia, though 3-1, had lost four defensive starters and two backups to that uncompromising trio of injury, arrest and academic ineligibility; and Alabama has one win to three losses. (The Tide's frustration over its inability to find a suitable replacement for a certain coaching legend is manifested in a song of questionable taste that has lately begun to get radio play in Alabama. The title: Dig 'im Up.)
Instead, neither Auburn nor Tennessee moved, forward or back. Both remain a palindromic 1-0-1 in conference play, but for the Volunteers the penalty for sister-kissing was more severe: dimmed national title hopes. Saturday's draw was their second of the season—the first was a 31-31 tie with Colorado—and no team has finished atop the polls with two ties. Dye had called Majors on Wednesday of last week and needled him for not having attempted a two-point conversion against the Buffaloes with 2:25 to go. Yet when the cravat, so to speak, tightened around Dye's neck with 1:56 remaining in last Saturday night's game, he hesitated not a nanosecond: Up went his index finger, and up from the throats of his assistants arose screams for the kicking team.
Afterward, Dye ticked off three reasons for his decision. "Number one, our best chance for winning was to tie it up, and then force Tennessee into throwing the football," he said. "Little did I know they were going to march down the field and try a field goal. Number two, we played too hard to come away with a loss. And number three, these kids have won three straight [SEC] championships, and a loss might've knocked them out of it this year."
Auburn needs to remain undefeated both inside and outside the conference to stay in another, larger battle it is waging—with ennui. The Tigers have won or shared the SEC title for three years running, and that distinction has lost some of its allure for them. "After doing something over and over again," says Lombardi Trophy candidate defensive tackle David Rocker, "you ask yourself, 'What can I do to make this more exciting?' We feel a national championship is within reach."
Until Saturday, White was the x factor. Does he take charge in the huddle, chew guys out, tell them to shut up? "Nooo!" says All-America guard Ed King, laughing. "You can tell he's a first-year quarterback. Sometimes he talks so light we have to say, 'Speak up, Stan.' "
It was two years ago this December that Dye decided White would be his quarterback of the future. That's when White's schoolboy team, Berry High of Birmingham, met Vigor High of Mobile in the state championship game at Legion Field in Birmingham. Recalls Dye, "Stan's team was predominantly slow and white, and Vigor was predominantly fast and black, and as fine a high school team as I've seen in the state of Alabama. Stan had virtually no chance." But White was sacked just once in his team's 41-7 loss. "He showed me something deeper than athletic ability that night," Dye says. "Anybody can look like an All-America when everything's falling his way."
Things were falling every way but White's for most of last Saturday's game. One play into the final quarter, Tennessee took a 26-9 lead, which meant the Tigers would have to air the ball out against the nation's top-ranked pass defense. The Volunteers had this one sewn up, right? Lacewell knew better. At halftime he had glanced at a stat sheet and was shocked to see that his defense had been on the field for 47 snaps. "I told Johnny the offense was going to have to get something going, or we were in trouble," said Lacewell.
While his Auburn counterpart, Wayne Hall, had the luxury of shuttling in waves of fresh linemen and linebackers every two or three downs, Lacewell could only watch as the legs of his pass rushers, of which he used nine, grew heavy. By the fourth quarter his linemen appeared to be lining up in quicksand.
On Auburn's first possession of the quarter, White went into a no-huddle offense. Three minutes, eight seconds and two third-down conversions later, the score was 26-12. After Tennessee went three downs and out, White completed five passes, including two on fourth down, to pull the Tigers to within a touchdown.
The key play, on fourth-and-goal at the Tennessee 13, was named Victory Cross. It calls for wideout Dale Overton to run a post pattern and then hook back toward the quarterback.
"But the cornerback was sitting on that all night," said Overton. So Overton ad-libbed, running a route that resembled a giant question mark, and White answered with a nicely feathered scoring pass.
White's third TD throw, on fourth-and-10 at the Vols' 11, wasn't as pretty, but a Volunteer blitz left free safety Dale Carter one-on-one with wideout Greg Taylor. Both jumped for the ball at the goal line. Carter leaped higher, but Taylor had better position and latched onto the ball, just as Dye later latched onto Majors while giving him some friendly grief.
"That great offensive team of yours got 318 yards of total offense," said Dye. "Our offense isn't supposed to be worth a damn, and we got 452 yards!"
"Pat," said Majors, almost pleading, "let's play one more quarter."