These days people around Tennessee are buying bumper stickers that say GO BIG ORANGE BOWL, but back in September it was hard to look at the Volunteers' first five opponents—UCLA, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Alabama and LSU—without wondering if that Big Orange might not turn a little green before long. "We knew the burden would be on the offense," says Dickey, "because our defense was young." Fair enough. Things stayed intact through a loss to UCLA, but then—one by one—Tennessee lost No. 1 Quarterback Dewey Warren, No. 2 Quarterback Charlie Fulton, its top place-kicker and two desperately needed defensive players. What happened through this period was the kind of thing, quite unpredictably, that gives one team a season to remember and another the urge to bury the class yearbook forever. Tennessee's replacements held the defensive fort and Auburn was beaten 14-13. Third-stringer Bubba Wyche pulled out the Georgia Tech game with two touchdown passes to Flanker Richmond Flowers, and a victory over Alabama was sewed up when Defensive Back Albert Dorsey intercepted his third pass and went 40 yards to score with a minute to play.
Despite the patching-up, Dickey was reasonably certain that his team was of bowl caliber, but it took the LSU game to guarantee it. And the hero of that particular clincher was a relatively anonymous kicker named Karl Kremser, a West Point transfer who had gone to Tennessee for its track program. Dickey found Kremser kicking a football for fun one day, signed him up and, of course, Tennessee beat LSU 17-14 because Kremser made one of the few field goals he ever had tried in public.
While Tennessee had to keep dipping into its wondrous supply of Wyches and Kremsers to stay even with its cripple roll, Oklahoma went the entire season with only one really notable injury—Line Coach Buck Nystrom sprained his ankle during practice. The Sooners figured to be a sound team from the start, but not an Orange Bowl entry, if only because the death of their popular young head coach, Jim Mackenzie, was sure to have an upsetting effect. In addition, the Sooners lost nine starting linemen from 1966. Oklahoma won its first two games easily enough with Quarterback Bob Warmack, a frail-looking junior, performing well. Then, with Texas due, a flu epidemic leveled the squad. Queasy or not, the Sooners pushed Texas all over the field for a half before finally losing 9-7. "That was the game that mattered," says Sooner Coach Chuck Fairbanks. "It told us we could play well against good football teams." From then on it was just one win after another, as Oklahoma's quick defense came into its own, shutting out both rugged Missouri and highly touted Colorado. Over the season Oklahoma gave up only 6.8 points a game, making it the top defensive team in the country. All-America Middle Guard Granville ("It's a thrill to hit people") Liggins was as tough as expected, and Linebacker Don ("I love collisions") Pfrimmer, a transfer to OU this year, was an unexpected terror.
In the Orange Bowl the Sooner defense may not be quite as effective as usual, for it has not come up against the likes of Dewey Warren or his big offensive line, led by Center Bob Johnson. On the other hand, Tennessee probably will have some trouble bottling up the Sooners' quick, diverse offense, especially the thrusts of Tailbacks Steve Owens and Ron Shotts, who spell each other to double their stamina (they finished one-two among Big Eight rushers). Both teams are well balanced, exquisitely drilled and profoundly unflappable. Both have efficient, executive-style coaching staffs. Dickey, for example, uses a computer to analyze his scouting reports. As a result, the Orange Bowl probably will be the textbook game of New Year's Day. When Doug Dickey was asked if he thought a bowl game might push his team to any new emotional peaks, his reply was typical Dickey, one that did not lead networks to interrupt their regularly scheduled programs. "A bowl game is a big event for a football player," he said. "Everyone will be playing his best." Right, Doug Dickey. Tennessee's best probably will be just a little bit better than Oklahoma's.
ALABAMA vs. TEXAS A&M
Bear Bryant wept in 1965 when Gene Stallings left Alabama to go to Texas A&M. During the seven years that Stallings served Bryant as an assistant coach, the two developed just about every classic relationship there is—pro-and-tyro, father-and-son, teacher-and-pupil, author-and-ghostwriter (Stallings ghosted Bryant's book, Building A Championship Football Team). Although he has been out on his own as A&M's head coach for three years now, Stallings still calls The Bear " Coach Bryant," and he is still habitually very big with the yessirs and nosirs in Bryant's presence. Now the old friends become foes-for-an-afternoon in the Cotton Bowl, and Gene Stallings is not kidding himself about that. "There is nobody I would rather play than Alabama," he says. "But I don't trust Coach Bryant out in the arena; I've been on his sideline too many times."
Obviously, Bryant is not to be trusted when he is across the field. This is his ninth bowl team—and ninth Top 10 team—at Alabama in the last nine years, and you don't do that by being palsy-walsy with the opposition. There were moments this year when Bryant's team did seem passive enough, such as the 37-37 tie against Florida State and the loss to Tennessee. But, as Gene Stallings knows better than anyone, The Bear believes a stout defense is the antidote to most losers' woes. In its last five games Alabama allowed a total of two touchdowns. The offense, too, took on some much-needed balance around mid-season. Splendid as the Kenny Stabler-to-Dennis Homan passing combination may be, it could not produce every yard the Tide needed, so when Fullback Ed Morgan and Tailback Tommy Wade finally started gaining on the ground, Alabama did not stop rolling until it had an 8-1-1 record.
All of which bodes exceedingly bad for Stallings' on-again-off-again Aggies. Although the A&M defense came up with 27 interceptions—that could mean trouble for Stabler—and has Linebacker Bill Hobbs, whom Stallings thinks is the best since Lee Roy Jordan, the Texans gave up an average of 340 yards a game. That is being too generous against any bowl opponent, to say nothing of a wise old Bear. Stallings likes to say, "Statistics are for losers." True or not, statistics certainly did not make his team a winner. They were out-first-downed, outrushed and outpassed all season. The A&M players call themselves a big play club, but the big play worked both ways. SMU beat them with four seconds left, and they lost to Florida State 19-18 because Place-kicker Charley Riggs's extra-point try hit the right upright and bounced back. After FSU, which was A&M's fourth straight loss, Stallings instituted Operation Shake Well, a vast realignment of the team. A&M never lost again, as the big plays began to go its way. On the next Saturday a 15-yard touchdown run by Quarterback Edd Hargett after the gun went offbeat Texas Tech 28-24, and the season ended with Texas A&M beating Texas 10-7 because a Riggs field-goal try hit the left upright and flopped inside the goalpost.
Even more than the big plays, it was that mad midseason lineup scramble that brought A&M to the Cotton Bowl. Stallings is entirely too self-deprecatory about it. "Smart coaches don't have to do that," he says. "They find their best football players in the spring and leave them at one position. I'm not that smart." Perhaps, but there is nothing not-smart about Stallings. Still, when you come up against The Bear it is best not to have any weaknesses at all. Certainly Bryant will find a way to exploit the Aggies' too-generous defense and the occasionally slow-footed ways of Quarterback Hargett. "There aren't many folks who beat Coach Bryant," said Stallings, "but I sure would like to. You would rather beat your friends than your enemies any day." In addition, if another philosophical point of view is needed, there is the one provided by the few million A&M fans who remember that Bryant was a head coach there from 1954 to 1957. They would gladly beat him, on the theory that he is an enemy for sure.
For Stallings, victory day may have to wait. Alabama's offense, defense, bench and overall class seem too much for Texas A&M. As to the coaches—well, Gene Stallings is 32 and Paul Bryant is going on 55, and even though Gene did write that book, it was The Bear who told him what to say.