For a while there, the sec, the finest assemblage of college football talent in the land, was in danger of having its third-best team in the Sugar Bowl. Had Alabama defeated No. 9 Auburn last Friday at Birmingham's Legion Field, the Tide would have ended its conference schedule tied at 5-1 with 12th-ranked Louisiana State, and would have had to be considered for the SEC's automatic bowl berth by virtue of having caught LSU napping on Nov. 7, 22-10. But Auburn prevailed 10-0 over 'Bama, and the issue was settled: The conference's best will go to New Orleans to face Syracuse.
Rest assured that there are hordes of Crimson Tide fans who will never concede that Auburn simply has a better team than 'Bama. For them, the defeat provided fresh ammunition in an ugly campaign against first-year coach Bill Curry, whose only crime is that he never played or coached for the Alabama icon, Bear Bryant. Sure, some second-guessing is in order: Why did Curry elect to pass—instead of settling for a field goal—on fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line late in the first half? And why did he call for a 53-yard field goal attempt with the game scoreless midway through the second quarter, when only one yard was needed for a first down?
But, in truth, it made little difference whether Curry was wrong or right in those decisions; 'Bama almost certainly would have lost, whatever he did, because Tiger coach Pat Dye clearly had the better horses. The Tide had only 183 yards in total offense—including an embarrassing 47 through the air—and never got closer to the end zone in the second half than the Tiger 49.
Such a performance is routine for Auburn's defense, which has yielded only 11.6 points per game this season, the stingiest average in the SEC. Nor was it surprising that quarterback Jeff Burger had another superb game, completing 14 of 18 passes for 128 yards. His finest moment came late in the first half, when he directed a 98-yard drive for the Tigers' touchdown. First he threw from his own end zone for a first down on the Auburn 12. Then, reading an Alabama blitz, Burger lofted a rainbow 44 yards to 6'4" Lawyer Tillman, who leaped to grab the ball over the head of the Tide's 5'11" cornerback, Gene Jelks. Two 'Bama penalties, an 18-yard dash by tailback Stacy Danley and a quick five-yard scamper into the end zone by tailback Harry Mose got the Tigers their 7-0 halftime lead.
What was surprising was pass-happy Auburn's sudden discovery of a running game in the person of Danley, a freshman, who slashed his way through the Alabama defense for 157 yards. He helped ice the game for the Tigers by gaining 47 yards in a six-minute, 72-yard drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal with 1:19 remaining.
For partisans of the two schools, of course, the game is never really over, it just simmers until next year. Alabama, which still holds a 30-21-1 edge in the series, will have to settle for a date with Michigan in the Hall of Fame Bowl on Jan. 2. Yet for fans of Dye's Tigers things could be no sweeter. As one exiting Winnebago proclaimed on the blinking message board in its rear window: WE'RE DYEABETIC. WE'VE GOT SUGAR IN OUR BLOOD.
Tillman's grab set up Auburn's only touchdown, the only one it needed.