To tell you the truth, Alabama is envious of us," Jim Jenkins, a dentist and Auburn fan—not necessarily in that order—was saying at a restaurant in Auburn before the two teams met last weekend.
Excuse me? That's Alabama, the No. 1 team in the nation? The team that is currently riding Division I's longest (20 games) unbeaten streak? The team that at that moment was the object of two bowl committees' lust? The team that Auburn has not beaten since 1972?
"Sure, they're envious because of the enjoyment we get out of a win. We get six or seven years' worth out of one." At that point drinks were ordered and a record of the highlights of Auburn's 1972 win over the Tide got another play. But it was left to another War Eagle devotee, Bill Stewart, to sum up Auburn's feelings about 'Bama. "Our hate of Alabama is not so deep that winning wouldn't cure it," he proclaimed.
As it turned out, Auburn seemed to have found the right prescription last Saturday before the Tide rose up and slammed the medicine-cabinet door shut for another year. But what made this 25-18 loss particularly bitter for the War Eagles—understand that every loss to 'Bama is bitter—is that the No. 1-ranked and 16-point favorite Tide did everything possible to give the game away. In the third quarter, Alabama had four fumbles, each of which was recovered by Auburn. There were more crises for 'Bama than on a week of Days of Our Lives.
In fact, with only 11:44 to play in the game, the War Eagles had clawed to an 18-17 advantage. But if 'Bama didn't play like a No. 1 team most of the afternoon, it did when it counted, which is how it came to pass that Quarterback Steadman Shealy was able to lead the Tide on an 82-yard game-winning march. "I had a good feeling during that drive," said Shealy. "I felt like we could do it if we stuck to our knittin'."
It was important that the Tide not drop a stitch if it wanted to remain in tenuous command of the race for the national championship, which would be 'Bama's sixth. And if it wanted to win its 17th SEC championship, which would crush the hopes of the Fiesta Bowl and put the Tide into the Sugar Bowl for a New Year's date against No. 8-ranked Arkansas.
"Our defense was spectacular and the offense played well enough to win," said Bear Bryant. Ah, yes, the Alabama defense, led by Linebacker Thomas Boyd, who had 12 unassisted tackles, and Defensive End E. J. Junior, with four unassisted tackles in the Auburn backfield, again had proved itself to be perhaps the best in the nation. While the Tide offense was losing dribbles all over the artificial turf of Birmingham's Legion Field, the defense had remained staunch, holding the War Eagles—the fifth-ranked rushing team in the nation with an average of 315 yards per game—to only 161 yards and 11 first downs.
The victory was an eye opener for a 'Bama fan named A. W. (Snap) Welborn. Ol' Snap lost his right eye in a hunting accident. He paid $100 for an artificial one inscribed "Roll Tide," which he inserts after every victory.
Auburn is not amused, especially since it is serving a two-year NCAA probation (no TV, no bowl) for recruiting violations, and the feeling is rampant among War Eagles that it was Alabama that turned them in. Still, Doug Barfield coached his team to an 8-3 record this year, which was fortunate, since anything less might have prompted his firing.
But of more significance is the fact that bruised feelings run deep at Auburn. An Alabama official says, "All you need to understand is that if you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, you go to Alabama. If you want to be a farmer or a county agent, you go to Auburn." Which is, of course, unfair. A sign in Tuscaloosa last week said AUBURN SHUCKS. When Fob James, a former Auburn running back who is now governor, announced his intention to improve education in the state, calling it a War on Illiteracy, it inspired one of those snooty Tuscaloosa types to sneer, "The war was canceled because Auburn surrendered."