Imagine that there is only one game that really matters. Every year, just one game. You are a college football player from Alabama or Auburn, and your season stretches from weightlifting in the winter through practice in the spring through running in the summer and through a long autumn of Saturdays in stadiums from Knoxville, Tenn., to Athens, Ga. And then you find that you haven't done anything, because you haven't yet played Auburn. Or Alabama.
Imagine what it's like to be Willie Gaston, a senior cornerback for the Crimson Tide from Mobile, Ala., who a year ago said not only that Auburn would fall, but also that Tiger running back James Bostic would not rush for 100 yards. Auburn won 22-14, Bostic got a buck-forty-seven, then sought out Gaston for personal taunting. "Sickening," Gaston remembers. When he went back home to the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church, little kids stopped him after Sunday services. "You'll lose to Auburn again," they said.
Imagine a place where, come November, sentences begin with one of the two rallying cries: Roll Tide or War Eagle, as in, "Roll Tide. Give me two eggs over easy with biscuits," or "War Eagle. You want to watch Frasier or Home Improvement?"
In a place like this, defeat lives for 364 days, the way it did for Alabama right up to the final seconds of last Saturday's 21-14 victory over Auburn. That's why Tide players lingered on the field when it was over, basking in the sustained roar that rained down from the girders of Birmingham's Legion Field. "Those little kids," Gaston said, "I probably won't be able to even find them after church anymore."
And this year, not only were the Tigers beaten, but also a door opened for the Crimson Tide. Eleven and oh. Can this be? Alabama is undefeated and suddenly, after a season in the shadows, has moved alongside Nebraska and Penn State as a contender for the national championship. There just might be something as good as beating Auburn. Imagine that.
What is it with Alabama and mystery? It was just two years ago that the Crimson Tide tiptoed softly through an 11-0 regular season and beat Florida in the first SEC championship game, only to be given little chance against Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama crushed the Hurricanes in New Orleans 34-13 to win its first post-Bear Bryant national title. Yet no one has since suggested that a dynasty was reborn.
Again this fall the Tide moved quietly. Alabama either was tied or trailed at half-time in seven of its first 10 games. Comparisons with 1992 are inevitable: Both teams won narrowly and gave up few points (9.1 points in '92, 13.5 this season). But as Alabama junior linebacker John Walters says, "The defense two years ago had four first-round guys [John Cope-land, Eric Curry, George Teague and Antonio Langham]. There was more talent."
As Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings sat last week in his office, he talked about the wonder of this autumn. "This team's got a heart as big as that '92 team's," he said, "but if you'd told me we were going to be undefeated at this point, I'd have been real pleased."
Stallings has sensed that callers to his weekly radio show this season were chafing to criticize but couldn't because 'Bama was winning. Crimson Tide fans had several concerns: The Tide had an underwhelming running game (averaging 161.3 yards going into the Auburn game), an inconsistent rushing defense (Mississippi State got 240 yards on Nov. 12) and enigmatic senior quarterback Jay Barker, who had led Alabama to a 33-1-1 record in games he started but whose talent remained constantly in doubt. All three of these concerns were addressed smashingly against Auburn, largely during a first-half tour de force in which the Tide took a 21-0 lead and, as it turned out, put the game out of reach.
Barker blew the game open with two touchdown passes, a 74-yarder to Toderick Malone on the last play of the first quarter and a 49-yard clothesline post to Marcell West with 10:25 to play in the first half that made the score 21-zip. In all, he completed eight of 17 for 177 yards.
There is a beautiful symmetry to anything that Alabama achieves with Barker at quarterback. A born-again Christian of deep faith, Barker is immersed in the lore of the Crimson Tide program, having grown up with posters of Bryant on his bedroom walls and with a longing to attend 'Bama. His heroes were Alabama quarterbacks of the late 1970s, Steadman Shealy and Jeff Rutledge, and in his youth football league he wore number 42, because that was the number of another of his heroes, Tide halfback Major Ogilvie, who was All-SEC in '79. Barker's philosophy of stardom is simple and unyielding: "Without my teammates, I would be nothing." Jay's father, Jerome, recalls that after Alabama's 31—10 defeat of Mississippi in 1992, an elderly fan approached the Barker family car. "Guy had to be 75 years old," says Jerome. "He reached across and said to Jay, 'Bear Bryant would have loved you.' "
Which isn't to say that Barker doesn't feel the sting of criticism. Bad arm. Mediocre passer. Just hands (he ball off. This is a guy who was 4 for 13 for 18 yards and two interceptions in the 1992 national championship game. But he remembers attending the Bowden family's football camp for high school kids in the summer of '89 and setting a distance passing record of 73 yards, a mark that still stands. He has brought Alabama back in those seven games this year, always with his arm. "I've always known I could throw," Barker said, his eyes burning.
As Jay left Legion Field on Saturday with Jerome at his side, he said, "The best thing about today is our senior class." That class has 44 wins, equaling the most by any in Alabama history.
And there's more. 'Bama has risen to No. 3 in the polls and has games remaining against No. 4 Florida (Dec. 3 in the SEC championship game) and in a bowl (if Alabama wins the SEC, it will almost certainly play No. 7 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl). Should Alabama run this gauntlet, it would have a persuasive argument when stacked up against either Penn State or Nebraska for the national championship. "The schedule is definitely in our favor from here on," Stallings says.
Auburn didn't bail out at the finish of Saturday's game. The Tigers have been through two emotional seasons under coach Terry Bowden, two years of probation and bonding, and they weren't about to quit. Auburn pulled within 21-14 with 2:23 left in the game. An onside kick failed, but Alabama went three-and-out, and the Tigers took over inside their one-yard line with 1:47 to play. Quarterback Patrick Nix drove Auburn to the Alabama 42 before he came up against fourth-and-three. Nix found Frank Sanders on a cross, but Sanders was wrestled down by cornerback Tommy Johnson and strong safety Sam Shade. "I knew where the marker was," said Shade. "And I knew when I hit him, he didn't get it." The officials weren't so certain and asked for the chains to be delivered to the middle of the field. Long seconds passed as the measurement was made, players from both teams crouching over the spot. Short. "You couldn't have put your finger between the ball and the stick," Walters said.
Auburn players went into apoplexy. Nix, customarily a pillar of control, ran at referee Bill Goss, protesting the spot and drawing a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Nine years ago, Nix watched on TV as Alabama's Van Tiffin kicked a 52-yard field goal to beat his Tigers. "I dove over the couch trying to block it," Nix remembered. "I missed the block. And then I just rolled over on the floor and cried." Here he was again. "Same emotions, only worse," Nix said later. "I didn't want to walk off the field."
Possession went to Alabama with 31 seconds left, and Barker took a knee once. It was over. And there was Shade, a senior from right there in Birmingham, beaming as he recalled a tackle from the only game that really matters. "I'll never forget about that play," he said. "I'm sure a lot of people will never forget about it."
It's what rivalries do. They put memories under glass, and, for some teams, they build steps to a higher ground.
For Barker and Stallings (top left, with Bowden), the Iron Bowl win was golden.
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Sherman Williams's first-quarter TD run began 'Bama's 21-0 blitz, after which the Tide barely held on.
After Shade and Johnson (10) stopped Sanders, Jeff McCullough embraced that winning feeling.
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