THE T-SHIRTS HAD BEGUN appearing all across the Plains following
Auburn's 38-35 defeat of Florida a month earlier. On the front of the
garments, beneath a sketch of a microphone, were these words: AUBURN,
BEST TEAM ON RADIO.
And that it was. The win over the Gators had upped the Tigers'
record to 7-0. Under the terms of their NCAA probation, however, they
were banned from appearing on television this season. The best team
on radio? At least since Burns and Allen.
Still, in an age when a song cannot become a hit without a video,
who would care about a team that couldn't have one?
Coach Terry Bowden, the program director of Auburn football, knew
who would care. He knew the tastes of his audience. ''Coach Bowden
appreciates radio a lot more than most coaches,'' says Mike Hubbard,
general manager of the Auburn Network, which broadcasts the school's
football games to 75 affiliates in the Southeast. ''Last year,
coaching at Samford, he sold and marketed his own radio show.''
Bowden put his knowledge to work before the '93 season even began.
He started early, airing promos designed to quell fan expectations.
August: ''We're an average football team.''
September: ''We're not a dominant football team.''
October: ''We're not a great football team, but we're playing
Come November, however, and his team's 42-28 victory over Georgia
in Athens (a game that the 9-0 Tigers had entered as 1 1/2-point
underdogs to the 4-5 Dawgs), Bowden finally admitted that if a team
plays 10 great games in a row, then perhaps it is a great team. And,
one week removed from a Louisiana State upset of Alabama that had
exhausted the SEC's supply of unbeaten teams not on probation, Bowden
saw fit to utter, at last, a more accurate sound bite: ''On the
field, this is the best team in the SEC,'' he said. ''We can't go to
a bowl, and we can't win the conference championship. But in our
minds, on the field, we're the best team in the SEC. They can't take
that away from us.''
In fact, while the win over Georgia moved Auburn up to No. 7 in
the AP poll, the Tigers had been No. 1 all season long. TRZ Sports
Services, a company that offers radio broadcasts of major college
games nationwide via an 800 phone number, had ranked them there.
''TRZ informs us that Auburn has led the nation every week in
popularity,'' says Hubbard. ''Against Florida, they set a record with
186 callers -- at an average of about $30 per call -- some from as
far away as California.''
Oddly enough, though, it was Georgia that appeared to be ruling
the airwaves at Sanford Stadium on this day. Bulldog quarterback Eric
Zeier completed 34 of 53 passes for 426 yards, more than double the
completion and yardage totals of his counterpart, Auburn's Stan
White. But poor reception had never been a problem at Georgia this
autumn; defense was, particularly against the rush. The Bulldogs
entered the game surrendering an average of 200 yards per game, most
in the conference.
Four days before the game, Georgia coach Ray Goff had pitted his
first-team offense against his first-team defense in the last drill
of the day. The ball was placed on the two-yard line, and the offense
proceeded to run 12 plays. Of the first 10, nine went for touchdowns.
''C'mon,'' yelled an exasperated Goff, ''you're losing 60 to
The score never reached 60-0 against Auburn. But 28-7? Briefly.
And 35-14? For a time. But 60-0? Never.
Early in the third quarter the score stood 21-7 in favor of the
Plainsmen when one of those plays occurred that summed up the
fortunes of each team's entire season. An offside penalty had given
Georgia first-and-five at the Auburn 22. As Zeier placed his hands
under center, the Tigers showed blitz. Zeier called an audible,
opting for a quick pass to split end Jeff Thomas in the left flat.
However, Auburn strong safety Brian Robinson tipped the ball and
teammate Chris Shelling intercepted, returning it 73 yards for a
touchdown. Though Zeier hit junior wideout Hason Graham for a 76-yard
touchdown on the very next play from scrimmage, Shelling's
interception typified the opportunistic style the Tigers had
displayed all season. For Zeier, whose game-tying touchdown pass
against Florida the week before had been nullified by a controversial
call, it was just another Dawg-day afternoon.
One Auburn player whose afternoon went from the doghouse to the
penthouse was tailback James Bostic. The SEC's second-leading rusher
going into the game (behind Florida's Errict Rhett), Bostic started
on the bench because of a chronic case of fumble-itis, which only
seemed to overcome him in the first halves of games. Though reliable
at crunch time, the junior had coughed up seven first-half fumbles in
Auburn's first nine games.
''You try not to overplay the problem,'' Bowden had said before
the game, ''but from a strategic standpoint, let him sit one or two
series. It's not going to affect the outcome of the game.''
It didn't. Bostic quietly replaced sophomore Stephen Davis late in
the first quarter and ran the ball 19 times for 183 yards and three
touchdowns. Afterward, Bostic, the man they call The Man, adhered to
his More Rock, Less Talk format, saying, ''I just keep quiet and let
my play do the talking.''
Despite the pounding by Bostic, Georgia trailed by a score of just
35-28 with 3:45 remaining, after Zeier hit senior flanker Brian
Bohannon with a fourth-down touchdown pass from the eight. Now Zeier,
chin strap still buckled, could only stand on the sideline and wish
for Auburn to go three plays and out.
But these Tigers don't do requests. Four plays later, Bostic
rumbled 26 yards for the last touchdown. And so it was that on an
afternoon when millions were glued to their TV sets watching Florida
State lose its No. 1 ranking to Notre Dame, the Auburn Tigers proved
once again that they were the best football team most people had