Much later, the sign still fluttered in the empty stadium, a bedsheet hanging from a balustrade, THE LUCK STOPS HERE, read the sign. In that moment when the cleats of Auburn wideout Frank Sanders had come down next to the f painted in the southeast end zone of Florida Field, a lot of things had stopped, chief among them the hearts of 85,562 sweaty-palmed spectators who had stared agape as Sanders hauled in an eight-yard lob from Tiger quarterback Patrick Nix with 30 seconds remaining. That play also stopped Florida's stint as the nation's No. 1 team, its drive for the national championship and, mercifully, the mouth of Gator coach Steve Spurrier. As for luck, the only thing that stopped was the suggestion that Auburn couldn't win without it.
Auburn's 18-game winning streak is the longest in the nation, and it has been built theatrically—and, some would say, with a good deal of luck. In 10 of those victories the Tigers have come from behind in the fourth quarter. If they had done that a couple of times, O.K., maybe you could say a charm was at work. But 10? That is not a matter of good fortune; that is a matter of talent, fervent belief in themselves and inspired coaching. Terry Bowden, who is in his second season as coach of the Tigers, now qualifies as a bona fide boy genius. In that capacity, the 38-year-old supplants the previous titleholder, Spurrier, who in the space of a single big-game week demoralized his own quarterback, inspired the opposition with ill-considered remarks and undermined his reputation for sideline acumen with a major miscalculation.
Sanders's leap was merely the last piece of one-upmanship in a frantic afternoon at the Swamp, where the Gators had won every one of their 15 SEC games since Spurrier's arrival in 1990. There were six lead changes, four of them in the fourth quarter. There were reverses and end arounds, flea-flickers and trick snaps, seeming death blows and innumerable traumas, like the one suffered by Gator quarterback Terry Dean, who entered the game as a leading Heisman candidate but gave up a fumble and four interceptions and was pulled early in the second half with Florida trailing 22-14. In came backup Danny Wuerffel, who tossed three touchdown passes and gave the Gators a 33-29 lead with 5:51 to go. Enough horrors and miracles for one day, surely.
Then, with little more than a half minute remaining and the Tigers at the Gator eight-yard line with a first-and-goal, Nix lofted the ball to Sanders, who at 6'2" easily outjumped his defender. Sanders touched lightly down on the turf next to 5'11" safety Michael Gilmore, who was on his knees and already grieving. Sanders celebrated with a kicking cancan, screaming, "I'm stepping with the big dogs!" Nix arrived and embraced him. "I love you. I love you," Sanders babbled.
Perhaps the final score, 36-33, was the most startling turn of all. The Gators, now 5-1, had come in as 17-point favorites, having averaged 50 points a game. They exited disheveled, outplayed and out-coached. The Tigers, now 7-0, had arrived in Gainesville ranked No. 6 and the subjects of much skepticism. They left having thrust themselves into contention for the national championship. "Truth is, we should have beat them worse than what we did," Nix said. "This wasn't a fluke. You can't call this luck."
After the delirium had subsided, Bowden stood outside the visitors' locker room, his shirt plastered to his body with sweat. It was the same white shirt, along with the same orange-and-blue Auburn tie and the same navy slacks, that he has worn to every game since the streak began at the start of last season. Bowden's clothes are the only concession he makes to superstition, and he makes it only because he has received mail from Tiger fans begging him not to alter his game-day outfit. Bowden isn't afraid of a jinx, but he is afraid of the fans. In fact, he goes out of his way not to be superstitious. He even changes wristwatches, almost as a form of protest. "When we start depending on luck, we'll lose a game," he says.
What Bowden is trying to do with the Tigers has nothing to do with luck. His aim is to go 22-0 and win the national title—without going to a bowl. It's conceivable, though no team has pulled it off since Oklahoma in 1974. Bowden took over a team that had won only 10 games over the previous two years under legendary coach Pat Dye, who resigned in the midst of an NCAA investigation that resulted in probation and sanctions.
With Auburn forbidden to play In the postseason both last season and this one, Bowden and his staff somehow persuaded the Tigers that they had something to play for anyway. This year he has convinced them that if they can go 11-0—a reasonable goal with four games remaining, three of them at home—they might win over enough voters in the AP poll (the USA Today/CNN coaches' poll excludes teams on probation) to share a No. 1 ranking with a bowl winner. For his persuasive powers alone, Bowden should probably get coach of the year honors. "I don't think the AP voters would give an 11-0 team that wasn't playing in January any consideration," Bowden said early last week. "But I do believe they would give a 22-0 team all the consideration in the world. At some point, you ought to be recognized just because you have the ability to win."
Convincing the Tigers that they could upset the Gators was one of the easier selling jobs Bowden has undertaken. The oddsmakers forgot one thing in making Auburn such a prohibitive underdog: The Tigers retained 15 regulars from the '93 team that had upset the Gators 38-35. On a bulletin board at Sewell Hall, Auburn's athletic dormitory, someone tacked up a picture of an alligator with the words EVEN THE STRONGEST HAVE A SOFT UNDERBELLY.
Auburn tore into the Gators' underbelly. Nix is no superstar, but he is a smart, tough son of a Georgia high school football coach. He has good rapport with Bowden and knows how to make his reads—he sliced up Florida for 319 passing yards and three touchdowns, without throwing an interception. Indeed, Auburn didn't suffer a turnover of any kind all afternoon. Even more telling, the Tigers ran for 168 yards against the Gators, who had entered the game ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing defense. When Florida had the ball, free safety Brian Robinson was a menace, crisscrossing the middle of the Held for three interceptions, two off Dean and the other off Wuerffel to set up the game-winning drive. Does that sound like luck?
The Tigers have been underrated for two reasons: lack of exposure (one of the NCAA sanctions was no TV appearances last season) and the fact that only two of their 17 victories had come over ranked teams. On one recent occasion when the Tigers did get national exposure, they had to overcome a 23-9 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat LSU 30-26. Perhaps that is why Spurrier was so dismissive of the Tigers in an interview with ESPN that aired last Saturday morning. "They don't play the type of schedule a lot of teams play," Spurrier said. "We're not putting them up on a pedestal as a national-championship team, I'll tell you that."
It was the kind of foolhardy needling—witness his reference this summer to Florida State as "Free Shoes University"—that has earned Spurrier the nickname Coach Superior around the South. Why Spurrier, who is basically a nice guy and a crafty coach, can't stop himself is a mystery. "I don't try to be a loudmouth," he said earlier in the week. Nonetheless, his remarks served only to whip the Tigers into a froth before the game and prompted unlimited gloating afterward.
Even more mystifying were his comments to Dean, whom twice last week Spurrier threatened to bench if he didn't play well. It was a puzzling way to attempt to motivate Dean, a fifth-year senior marketing major who carries a 3.9 GPA but has suffered intermittent crises of confidence in his football career. "He told me if I played bad I was going out," Dean said.
Dean's relationship with Spurrier, who is often critical of his quarterbacks, is at best businesslike and at worst hostile. "We won't be going on any fishing trips together," Dean said.
He lost the starting position last year after throwing four interceptions by early in the third quarter against Kentucky. Wuerffel, then a redshirt freshman, saved the day and started five games before Dean regained the job. This season Dean was finally living up to his promise—he came into the Auburn game having completed 62% of his passes for 18 touchdowns—but he had been inconsistent in his last outing, earning Spurrier's ire with a mediocre performance in a 42-18 rout of LSU.
Did Spurrier's threats shake Dean's confidence again? "I think it's pretty obvious," Dean said after the game. "You be the judge. He can say what he wants. It's my job to block it out."
Spurrier defended not only his handling of Dean but also Dean's performance against Auburn, blaming the interceptions on "poor coaching." He did not indicate, however, whether Dean or Wuerffel would start the Gators' next game, against Georgia on Oct. 29.
Wuerffel was nearly immaculate in his play. He completed his first nine passes and threw touchdown strikes of 26, 17 and 28 yards, the last a perfect arc over the middle to Jack Jackson that gave Florida the 33-29 lead. Shortly afterward, though, Spurrier made the last of several play-calling gaffes. After Auburn got one first down on its drive, the Gators took possession on their own 20-yard line with four minutes remaining.
Facing third-and-15 on the 29 with 1:31 left, Spurrier called for a pass. Wuerffel threw down the middle, and Robinson made the interception. Instead of having to field a punt and start deep in their own territory with less than a minute to go, the Tigers began their final march on their 45. Although Spurrier tried to minimize the importance of the call—"We would have been punting on the next down anyway," he said—the damage was undeniable.
By contrast, Bowden made no poor decisions. The Auburn sideline was in a kind of controlled pandemonium during the final drive, which covered 55 yards in 50 seconds. "You get so busy thinking about how to win, you don't think about losing," said Bowden later.
The Tigers on the field mirrored the composure of their coaches on the sideline. While Sanders's catch was the game-winner, an equally crucial play came earlier in the drive. Sanders, overeager, had dropped an easy ball to help put Auburn in a fourth-and-10 hole at the Florida 42 with 51 seconds remaining. During a timeout, Nix got on the headphones to the coaches upstairs and started yelling suggestions. "They had to tell me to shut up," he said.
Nix returned to the field with a newly drawn-up play, a variation of something in the playbook named, appropriately, "X comeback." The play had Thomas Bailey and Sanders, who usually line up on the right, on the left. The Gator defenders, tentative, dropped off and gave Bailey room to make a 14-yard reception for the first down. "It was a real fun game until then," Spurrier said.
On the touchdown play Nix stepped to the line of scrimmage and suppressed a smile as he surveyed the Florida defense. He noticed the Gators had single coverage on Sanders, who was again on the left side. More important, Sanders was three inches taller than the man assigned to cover him. "We couldn't believe the alignment they were in," Nix said.
Sanders ran a corner route toward the flag and leaped high as the ball fell. Later, he stood in the empty stadium on the spot where he had made the catch and remembered what he had seen at that moment. "All you can see is the rotations of the ball and a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Sanders. "Everybody is waiting for you to make something happen."
For Sanders and Auburn, the wait is over.