Imagine that there is only one game that really matters. Every year, just one game. You are a college football player from Alabama or Auburn, and your season stretches from weightlifting in the winter through practice in the spring through running in the summer and through a long autumn of Saturdays in stadiums from Knoxville, Tenn., to Athens, Ga. And then you find that you haven't done anything, because you haven't yet played Auburn. Or Alabama.
Imagine what it's like to be Willie Gaston, a senior cornerback for the Crimson Tide from Mobile, Ala., who a year ago said not only that Auburn would fall, but also that Tiger running back James Bostic would not rush for 100 yards. Auburn won 22-14, Bostic got a buck-forty-seven, then sought out Gaston for personal taunting. "Sickening," Gaston remembers. When he went back home to the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church, little kids stopped him after Sunday services. "You'll lose to Auburn again," they said.
Imagine a place where, come November, sentences begin with one of the two rallying cries: Roll Tide or War Eagle, as in, "Roll Tide. Give me two eggs over easy with biscuits," or "War Eagle. You want to watch Frasier or Home Improvement?"
In a place like this, defeat lives for 364 days, the way it did for Alabama right up to the final seconds of last Saturday's 21-14 victory over Auburn. That's why Tide players lingered on the field when it was over, basking in the sustained roar that rained down from the girders of Birmingham's Legion Field. "Those little kids," Gaston said, "I probably won't be able to even find them after church anymore."
And this year, not only were the Tigers beaten, but also a door opened for the Crimson Tide. Eleven and oh. Can this be? Alabama is undefeated and suddenly, after a season in the shadows, has moved alongside Nebraska and Penn State as a contender for the national championship. There just might be something as good as beating Auburn. Imagine that.
What is it with Alabama and mystery? It was just two years ago that the Crimson Tide tiptoed softly through an 11-0 regular season and beat Florida in the first SEC championship game, only to be given little chance against Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama crushed the Hurricanes in New Orleans 34-13 to win its first post- Bear Bryant national title. Yet no one has since suggested that a dynasty was reborn.
Again this fall the Tide moved quietly. Alabama either was tied or trailed at half-time in seven of its first 10 games. Comparisons with 1992 are inevitable: Both teams won narrowly and gave up few points (9.1 points in '92, 13.5 this season). But as Alabama junior linebacker John Walters says, "The defense two years ago had four first-round guys [John Cope-land, Eric Curry, George Teague and Antonio Langham]. There was more talent."
As Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings sat last week in his office, he talked about the wonder of this autumn. "This team's got a heart as big as that '92 team's," he said, "but if you'd told me we were going to be undefeated at this point, I'd have been real pleased."
Stallings has sensed that callers to his weekly radio show this season were chafing to criticize but couldn't because 'Bama was winning. Crimson Tide fans had several concerns: The Tide had an underwhelming running game (averaging 161.3 yards going into the Auburn game), an inconsistent rushing defense ( Mississippi State got 240 yards on Nov. 12) and enigmatic senior quarterback Jay Barker, who had led Alabama to a 33-1-1 record in games he started but whose talent remained constantly in doubt. All three of these concerns were addressed smashingly against Auburn, largely during a first-half tour de force in which the Tide took a 21-0 lead and, as it turned out, put the game out of reach.
Barker blew the game open with two touchdown passes, a 74-yarder to Toderick Malone on the last play of the first quarter and a 49-yard clothesline post to Marcell West with 10:25 to play in the first half that made the score 21-zip. In all, he completed eight of 17 for 177 yards.