It's a shame that this Auburn team came together in the Year of the Cornhusker, because the Tigers are tough and talented enough to win a national championship themselves. Well, perhaps next season. Auburn has a jazz dancer at cornerback, a whiz kid at linebacker and as many as six future pros on the defensive line. And Auburn runs a fine-tuned, old-fashioned triple-option wishbone with a quarterback who strums easy-listening songs on his guitar, a left halfback who plays the role of a big brother, though he's only 5'7" and 171 pounds, and a talented right halfback with the potential to be the second-best runner ever to wear No. 34 in the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers are also a team with a mission—they've dedicated the season to Fullback Greg Pratt, who collapsed and died on Aug. 20, after a preseason conditioning drill. They're a team with a proven winner in Coach Pat Dye, who mixes in some merriment with all his militarism. Most significant, they're a team with something even mighty Nebraska doesn't have: a tough schedule.
Last Saturday, Auburn stared into the deepest, darkest pit of that schedule and didn't blink. It beat Georgia 13-7 on the road, walking out of Sanford Stadium with a 9-1 record, at least a share of the SEC title, a Sugar Bowl bid and pieces of the storied Sanford hedge in their teeth. Sugar Bowl officials won't officially tender their invitation until this weekend, but the white substance that the Tigers spread on the game ball Saturday was definitely not the drug of choice for today's athlete. Dye took the ball, grinned mischievously and licked off the sugar. Not too nutritious, but, oh, so delicious.
In New Orleans, Auburn most likely will face the winner of Saturday's Ohio State-Michigan game. Georgia, meanwhile, is still a good bet to play in the Cotton Bowl, probably against Texas. If the Bulldogs do meet the Longhorns, fans should bring plenty of NoDoz because that one could end up 3-2. You've all heard "How 'bout them Dawgs?" Well, "How 'bout them dogs?" must be a reference to Georgia's sluggish offense.
Words of praise are nevertheless in order for Coach Vince Dooley and his Bulldogs. "I still consider Georgia the Number Four team in the country," said Cornerback David King, the Tigers' gift to Auburn's Dance Theater. And when Nebraska, Texas or even Auburn falters next year or the year after, remember Georgia's consistency over the past few seasons. The Bulldogs are 40-2-1 in their last 43 regular-season games.
Befitting its tradition, Georgia was still fighting—or "hunkering down" as the locals like to say—even as it became obvious that Saturday was Auburn's day. From the opening kickoff until Georgia got possession with 3:35 remaining, the Tigers had outgained the Dawgs 359 yards to 94 and appeared to have one of the safest 13-0 leads imaginable. To that point Georgia Quarterback John Lastinger had completed only four of 12 passes for a measly 32 yards, had been booed by his own fans and had been replaced on occasion by sophomore backup Todd Williams. Lastinger has been a consistent winner the past two seasons more because of his equanimity than his physical talents.
Georgia's last-gasp, 80-yard TD drive cut the Tigers' lead to 13-7 with 2:11 showing on the clock. Never mind that the march also accounted for 48% of the Dawgs' total yardage for the game. When Bulldog Safety David Painter recovered the ensuing onside kick at the Georgia 46, the Dawgs were back in contention. But not for long. Georgia's final series lasted just four plays and netted minus six yards, thanks largely to Tiger Defensive End Quency Williams, who sacked Lastinger on first down, and to Linebacker Gregg Carr, who tackled freshman Fred Lane for a three-yard loss on third down. Carr, who finished with a team-high eight stops, is a civil engineering major with a 3.72 grade-point average and a cinch to be named Academic All-America. How 'bout them Tigers?
Auburn's return to respectability was all but assured the day that Dye, an assistant under Bear Bryant at Alabama from 1965 to 73, arrived on campus in January 1981 with an impressive 54-23-1 record after six years as head coach at East Carolina and one at Wyoming. Dye's methods contrast sharply with the easygoing regime of his predecessor, Doug Barfield, who was 29-25-1 from 1976 to '80 and never beat Alabama. Dye, now 23-10 at Auburn, defeated the Tide in his second try. If he can beat 'Bama again at Birmingham on Dec. 3, the Tigers will have their first undisputed SEC title since 1957, when they also won the national championship.
"I'll never forget Coach Dye's first meeting," says Auburn Tackle Pat Arrington. "He walked in and said fiat out, 'I'm going to the Sugar Bowl, and anybody who doesn't want to go with me can leave.' By the time that first spring practice was over, about 30 guys had left. That's how tough it was. Believe me, I thought about quitting every night."
"I'd been a linebacker under Coach Barfield," says Dowe Aughtman, the noseguard in the Tigers' 5-2 defense. "Coach Dye took one look at me and said, 'My linebackers are 215 and run a 4.8 40.' Well, I weighed about 240 at the time and couldn't run less than a five. I thought my career was over until, luckily, I found a new position."