Talk about mood swings. one year ago, Tennessee fans were out shopping for tar, feathers and a rail on which to ride coach Johnny Majors out of town. Last Saturday the same bunch, delirious and drenched by a steady downpour, stormed the field in Knoxville's Neyland Stadium in a joyous celebration of the Volunteers' 21-14 upset of Auburn. The only ride they might have wanted to give Majors was on their shoulders.
September 1988 was one of the ugliest months in the history of Volunteers football—during those 30 days, Tennessee dropped its first four games of the season by a combined score of 131-58—and on Oct. 1, Washington State thrashed the Vols 52-24. Five in a row. Feeling the hot breath of the mob, Majors knew he had to make some difficult decisions.
He relieved his friend and one-time mentor, defensive coordinator Ken Donahue, of his duties. He demoted starters. "We moved people around, we simplified the defense," says Majors. "We had almost a mini-spring practice and got ready for Alabama." Not ready enough, as it turned out. The Tide handed Tennessee loss number six, 28-20, giving the 1988 Vols the distinction of being the first Tennessee team ever to lose its first six games. On the Knoxville campus, conversation died when football players entered rooms. "We were our only friends," says tailback Reggie Cobb.
These days they have plenty of friends. On Oct. 22, 1988, the Vols defeated Memphis State 38-25 to break their losing streak; they then added four more wins in a row to finish out the season. This fall Tennessee, playing with most of the same bodies who were responsible for last year's horrific start, has won its first four games.
What accounts for this sudden change in fortune? For one thing, the Volunteers' linemen are no longer the weakest in the SEC, as they admit they were last season. And their defense is thinking less and reacting more, or, as cornerback Preston Warren says, "chasing the ball and punishing people." What's more, Majors was willing to reinstate Cobb this fall after suspending him from the team last February.
A glance at Saturday's final score might lead one to deduce that Tennessee won by scoring three touchdowns to Auburn's two. Two Tigers, in particular, wish that had been the case. Ron Burchfield and Travis Galloway called attention to themselves the only way deep snappers can—by messing up. Late in the first quarter, Burchfield's 20-plus yard parabola over punter Chris Dickinson's head rolled out of the end zone, giving the Vols a 2-0 lead. Six minutes later, Galloway launched a 37-yarder that Dickinson retrieved behind his own goal line. It was that kind of day for the visitors.
Auburn coach Pat Dye had an uneasy feeling going into the game. The Tigers had won only once in three games at Neyland Stadium since 1983, despite being favored each time they visited, and his 2-0 team had yet to be truly challenged. Still, Dye felt confident of one thing: His defensive line would dominate. No question. Since 1981, when Wayne Hall became defensive line coach, all but one of his starters have been all-SEC. Nine of Hall's products are in the NFL, and this season's three new starters seemed assured of long careers studded with postseason honors.
But something went awry, beginning with Tennessee's second possession, when the Volunteers' offensive linemen—most notably right guard Eric Still—began driving the Tigers off the ball. Tailbacks Cobb and Chuck Webb were biting off huge chunks of yardage right up the gut of Auburn's defense. The Vols rushed for 66 yards on that possession, which ended with a shanked 37-yard field goal attempt. But a statement had been made.
"We're not the same team they beat 38-6 a year ago," said Cobb after Saturday's game. "They made some remarks during the week, saying I wasn't going to be a factor in the game." Cobb's 225 yards on 22 carries turned out to be the best rushing day anyone has had against an Auburn defense in 38 years.
That's not to say the Tigers were doing all the jawing in the days before the game. Majors raked up some muck by stating that Dye "must have a good relationship with his registrar"—a reference to the 15 Proposition 48 athletes on Auburn's roster. "Our school doesn't permit us to take that many," said Majors.