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?