His partner was about to tee off, so he had to whisper. But as
the words bubbled up and spilled forth from Tiger coach Terry
Bowden, his decibel level rose with every syllable. "I want
Auburn to be considered a national championship contender every
year," Bowden said. "You aren't going to win it every time.
Heck, Nebraska was a contender every year for 10 years before
they won it. But we've been contenders the last two years. This
season is our chance to prove we belong with the best on a
consistent basis."

After his partner hit--somehow cleanly striking the ball in
spite of the background chatter--Bowden grabbed an eight-iron
and stepped into the tee box on the par-3 4th hole at the Auburn
Links golf course. He took one hasty practice swing, then
whacked the ball. His shot rocketed high into the April sky,
heading straight at the pin 130 yards away. But, as if to
provide an illustration of what Bowden had just said, the ball
landed on the fringe of the green.

Almost a great shot. Almost a great team.

Over the last two seasons, the Tigers went 20-1-1; only Nebraska
won more regular-season games in that span. But much of Auburn's
success has been clouded by pay-for-play violations that
surfaced in 1992, prompting NCAA sanctions that prevented the
school from going to a bowl for the past two years. "A lot of
people seem to think that the last two years have been flukes,"
says Patrick Nix, Auburn's fifth-year senior quarterback. "This
season the country will learn how good we are."

This good: These Tigers may be Bowden's best team yet. Auburn's
rise can be traced back to a decision Bowden made soon after
replacing Pat Dye in December 1992. When hired to clean up a
scandal, most coaches implement a policy of cut-and-burn. But
Bowden, in what turned out to be a wise move, chose to retain
three key members of Dye's staff. In his first season, with 15
starters back from a team that had finished 5-6, Bowden went
11-0 to quickly lift Auburn out of the ashes. "It was a matter
of us doing the little things," Bowden says, "like practicing
harder than ever before and simply being disciplined in the way
we play and in the way we approach the game."

Even more than his fabled surname, it has been Bowden's ability
to win games in the second half that is creating a mythology in
Auburn that he is somehow a blessed coach. Of the Tigers' 20
victories under him, eight have come when they trailed or were
tied during the second half. And some of the rallies have been
so amazing--like last year's 36-33 victory over Florida in
Gainesville--that at times it seems that Bowden must indeed
benefit from divine intervention.

Nix was at the helm in all three of last season's comebacks. He
played for his father, Conrad, at Etowah High in Rainbow City,
Ala., and has the sort of cerebral, mistake-free game that
Bowden demands from his quarterbacks. With eight offensive
starters returning (including the entire line and the tight
end), an attack that finished fourth overall in the SEC last
season is potentially one of the most lethal in the nation. "Our
offense is comparable to Penn State's last year," says Nix, who
passed for 2,206 yards and 13 touchdowns as a first-year starter
in '94. "We don't have any weaknesses."

An obvious strength is 6'2", 233-pound senior tailback Stephen
Davis, who gained 1,263 yards on 221 carries last season. Davis
runs the 40 in 4.3 and can power through tackles. If he avoids
fumbles (nine last season), he should make a serious charge at
the Heisman Trophy. "I'm not going to run him 35 times to get
him the Heisman," Bowden says. "But I will run him as much as he
shows me he can handle it. He's awful good."

Lining up at fullback will be sophomore Fred Beasley, last
year's backup at tailback, who will have to play an even larger
role in the passing game because both starting wide receivers
are gone. Frank Sanders, who was drafted in the second round by
the Arizona Cardinals, and Thomas Bailey combined for 99
receptions and 1,460 yards in '94. Their replacements, junior
Willie Gosha and sophomore Tyrone Goodson, have no starts and
only 24 career catches between them.

On defense, the Tigers lost their entire front line to
graduation. To compensate for the dearth of experienced linemen,
defensive coordinator Wayne Hall has switched the scheme from a
4-3 back to the 3-4 Auburn used during most of the '80s. The
shift allows Hall to exploit one of the quickest sets of
linebackers in the nation, led by senior Anthony Harris inside
and junior Marcellus Mostella outside. Freshman 'backer Takeo
Spikes from Washington County (Ga.) High, the prize catch of the
Tigers' best recruiting class ever, will see time as well. "We
have good overall speed and talent on defense," says Bowden,
"but the jury is still out on how good they'll be."

If the defensive line matures as Bowden expects, then the Tigers
will make a run at the national title. They'll probably have to
beat Florida twice-both at home on Oct. 14 and at Atlanta in the
SEC championship game--but don't put anything past Bowden. Except
hitting those greens.

--Lars Anderson

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER With the heady Nix in charge, the Tigers can never be counted out. [Patrick Nix in game]

The Data Box
Head coach: Terry Bowden
Career college record: 84-37-2
Third year at Auburn (20-1-1)

1994 RECORD: 9-1-1
SEC record: 6-1-1(ineligible for conference title)

W at Mississippi 22-17
W Northeast Louisiana 44-12
W LSU 30-26
W East Tennessee State 38-0
W Kentucky 41-14
W at Mississippi State 42-18
W at Florida 36-33
W Arkansas 31-14
W East Carolina 38-21
T Georgia 23-23
L Alabama 21-14 (at Birmingham)

Final '94 ranking: 9 AP, ineligible for CNN/USA Today

Lettermen lost: 19
Lettermen returning: 43
Returning starters, offense: 8
Returning starters, defense: 5

KEY GAMES:
Sept. 16 at LSU
Oct. 14 Florida
Nov. 18 Alabama

PLAYER TO WATCH

On one of college football's most memorable drives last season,
Willie Gosha made the catch of his career. With Auburn trailing
Florida 33-29 and less than a minute remaining, Gosha snagged a
Patrick Nix bullet along the sideline and dragged his back foot
inbounds for a 20-yard completion. On the next play, Frank
Sanders caught the touchdown pass that capped the Tigers'
comeback.

Sanders is gone to the NFL now, leaving Gosha (pronounced
GO-shay) as the Tigers' go-to receiver. "I feel like I'm the
kind of receiver Frank was," says Gosha. "Just throw it up there
and I can get it. And like Frank, I can turn a short catch into
a long run."

A 6'1", 171-pound junior from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Gosha has
only nine career receptions. And on that final drive in
Gainesville, he had a drop as well as that spectacular grab.
"Willie is very talented," says coach Terry Bowden. "He just has
to show that he can make the big plays that Frank did." The
Tigers are counting on it.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)