Though Burger's woes are mostly behind him—an "academic dishonesty" citation will be expunged from his official transcript when he successfully repeats the industrial psychology course—Tennessee had not forgotten. During practice last week, Vol backup quarterback Kyle Horner, pretending to be Burger, pasted his jersey with tags reading PLAGIARISM, CONVICT and CHEATING IS FUNDAMENTAL.
When Saturday's game began, the Vols got serious and, using a varied menu of defenses, grounded Burger. He completed 16 of 27 passes for just 129 yards and threw a third-quarter interception to Victor Peppers that set up an eight-yard touchdown run by Cobb. That score gave Tennessee a 10-6 lead. But as the Vols drifted into deeper zones and looser pass coverages, Auburn went back to basics. Rushing on 23 of 27 plays, the Tigers fashioned TD marches of 80 and 40 yards and led 20-10 with 11:33 left.
The Auburn defense is a Rocker-ribbed crew that pursues relentlessly. The Tigers had permitted a total of only three points in their first two games, but they gave up seven more than that to the Vols in the third quarter. After Tennessee plodded 55 yards to pull within a touchdown on Reich's 24-yard field goal with 7:46 remaining, it seemed likely that Auburn's defense would be able to hold off any further incursions.
The decisive (well, almost decisive) drive of the game began with 6:12 left, the ball on the Vol 44 and Francis, a junior, in the role he seems born to play. He had already demonstrated grace under pressure this season, chilling Iowa with two late drives in Tennessee's 23-22 Kickoff Classic victory. Francis looks and sounds rather like Dudley Do-Right, with courage to match. "Where else do you want to be?" Francis asks. "We're down a touchdown, we've got the ball, and time's running out in the biggest game all of us have played in."
Francis connected on four of five passes for 38 yards, including, on third and 14, a scrambling dump-off to fullback Charles Wilson that set up a fourth and a foot at the Auburn 7. That set up Cobb, a gifted 205-pound redshirt freshman, to find a hole where none seemed to exist and surge into the end zone. "I would have never thought they could take the ball and drive it twice on us in the fourth quarter," said the disheartened Dye. "Not on this defense."
The Tigers began their final possession on their own 20 with 1:20 left and three timeouts remaining. They wasted one timeout with the clock already stopped; a tired tailback had to be removed from the game. The final one disappeared with 19 seconds to go, when an intentional incompletion would have done just as well.
With the clock ticking down, Burger reached the Vols' 33 on a nine-yard completion. Auburn needed only to make the snap and kill the clock with an out-of-bounds pass. That would have set the stage for a 50-yard field goal attempt by freshman Win Lyle, who had already kicked two from that neighborhood. But Vol linebacker Keith DeLong, who had a game-high 16 tackles, smartly walked de long way back to the line of scrimmage as the clock ran out.
In Baton Rouge, Ohio State coach Earle Bruce felt that the officials took de long way of marking the ball with time running out. Ohio State had put itself in position to win when cornerback Greg Rogan intercepted his second Hodson pass, on the LSU 45. The Buckeyes then drove to the 30, where they wanted desperately to run one more play from scrimmage but instead were forced into their unsuccessful game-ending field goal attempt. "They're seven nice guys from the South," was Bruce's description of the all-SEC refereeing crew. "They wouldn't get away from the ball so we could run another play. For some reason they were marking the ball fast on one side and not too fast on the other."
Costly as the final interception nearly was for LSU, it was one Flodson threw with 2:03 to play that cost the Tigers a victory. On second-and-seven on the Ohio State eight, Flodson tried to force the ball to receiver Wendell Davis for a touchdown. It flew right into Rogan's hands. The misthrown pass deprived the Tigers of an almost certain field goal by David Brown-dyke, who had already made three-pointers of 20 and 40 yards. "I wanted to get rid of it, and I got rid of it in the wrong place," said Hodson.
And now the big question was what was the right place for these teams in the national—and in the case of the Vols and all those Tigers, in the SEC—standings. "You don't know whether to think of it as a loss or a win or just feel confusion," said Rocker. "Maybe at the end of the year we'll know whether it was a win or a loss."