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"The opening kickoff was something of an upset: Tennessee kicked to Auburn and Auburn did not fumble the ball. An official almost stepped off 15 yards against Auburn for cheating. Up in the stands, fans turned hastily to their programs to see if they were in the right stadium. You see, Auburn and Tennessee are both awesome against almost any other team but wren they play each other it's the Fumble Bowl, old Stonefingers U. against Iron Hands Tech. In one quarter alone last year, they managed to give away the ball nine times. There are some teams that could not foul up that much even if it was part of the game plan. In the last two games against each other, 27 such blunders occurred, an average of a fumble lost or a pass intercepted about every four minutes. For the two defenses, Tennessee-Auburn is not a football game, it's the Alamo. And so the perfection of the opening kickoff return was dazzling. Nine plays later Auburn fumbled, Tennessee recovered and the real game was on.
By halftime, Tennessee, which itself had fumbled away one punt in the second quarter, had collected a pair of field goals from George Hunt and was holding a precarious 6-0 lead. Tennessee used two quarterbacks, neither of whom will be remembered for his passing, and the offense sputtered under the handicap. "We're not confident in our offense yet because it doesn't have a No. 1 quarterback who can come in and do the job," said Bobby Majors, Tennessee's All-America safety who led the nation with 10 interceptions last year. "We kind of worry about that."
But if Tennessee was worried, by half-time Auburn was frantic. Oh, the Tigers have a quarterback, one of the best. Last season, as a junior, Pat Sullivan led the nation in total offense while setting an NCAA record for yards gained (8.57) per play. Hardly a worry there. But on the seventh play against Tennessee, Terry Beasley, Auburn's exciting split end, leaped for a Sullivan pass, was flipped by Majors and came crashing down on his head. "I remember that and I remember coming to in the dressing room," Beasley said. "In between, nothing."
In between, he ran a fly pattern while unconscious and shortly was led to the dressing room. "I knew he was hurt," said Majors. "When he got up his eyes were glazed. And he hung around our defensive huddle for a moment before wandering over to his own side."
Without Beasley, who can run 60 yards in 6.1 seconds, Auburn's attack is something less than explosive. "It isn't so much the passes that he catches as what he does after he catches them," said one pro scout. Last year he caught 52—for 1,051 yards and 11 touchdowns. While Beasley was out of the game, the best Sullivan could manage was two completions in 12 attempts for nine yards. "I think it was the worst half I ever had," he said later. "The ball was just slipping off my hand. I had no control."
Auburn went into halftime with no points, just 88 total yards and six first downs. To the Tigers it seemed like even less. "Can you believe that?" said Wingback Dick Schmalz. "Here we are supposed to have the most powerful offense in the country. And in a half all we get was two first downs. You better believe we were pretty shook."
All week Tennessee had said that to win it had to stop Sullivan and Beasley, something it had failed to do the year before. With Sullivan pitching and Beasley catching, Auburn had won 36-23 and may have cost Tennessee, which went on to win its next 10 games, the national championship.
"Obviously, we have to eliminate the long pass like they got last year," said Bill Battle, Tennessee's young coach, on the Thursday before the game in Knoxville. "They do as good a job with the bomb as I've seen. But we still should have beat them last year. We were running the ball real well, knocking their tails out of there. Then all of a sudden I got the idea to start throwing the ball. They intercepted one and that started it. Without that, we could have killed them." He paused, frowning. Then he went on: "I've been thinking about Auburn all year."
Battle did not have to tell the players he was pointing for Auburn. As one, they felt the same. "When you talk about the Auburn-Tennessee game, you're talking about the national title," said Curt Watson, a senior fullback who is just 129 yards from the school's alltime rushing record, an honor that leaves him cold. "Oh, I'll be happy to have the record, but it really isn't a lot of yards [1,888], you know. Beating Auburn is something else. Like I was dating this beautiful girl last night. It was our first date and we're sitting there talking. She was going on about something and I never heard a word she said. Then all of a sudden I said: I hope we beat Auburn.' I hope she understood."
Meanwhile, south in Auburn, Alabama, if there was any tension it was only in the backroom of the local Gulf station where students gather to drink beer and swap lies. Out on the practice field, Shug Jordan, who has been sending Auburn teams into battle since 1951, shuffled about, hands joined behind his back, the picture of total unconcern. "I heard Tennessee said they are determined that Sullivan and Beasley aren't going to do it to them," he said with the suspicion of a smile. "Well, there are other ways to beat them: Sullivan to somebody else, for instance. We had 11 different people catch passes in our opening win over Chattanooga. Tennessee won its bowl game easily last year and finished with an enviable record. But all they seem to remember is that one loss to us. Of course, revenge is a pretty strong motive."