A sense of urgency pervades the Tigers' practices these days.
"It's not because of what the media likes to print about coach
[Terry] Bowden--you know, 'If he doesn't do it this year, he
might be gone next year,'" says junior linebacker Takeo Spikes.
"It's us. We're tired of having 8-4 seasons, especially 8-4
seasons that could've been 9-3...or 10-2."
Seasons like 1996. In the span of five weeks, the Tigers went
from a 5-1 team ranked No. 16 in the country to a 7-4 team
reeling from a 41-point blowout at the hands of Florida, a
heartbreaking four-overtime loss to Georgia and a gut-wrenching
24-23 letdown against cross-state rival Alabama.
The 56-49 Georgia defeat, in which a 30-yard touchdown pass by
the Bulldogs with one second remaining forced overtime, still
haunts Auburn. "I've been a head coach 13 years, and that was
the toughest loss I've ever had," says Bowden, whose team led
28-14 before being held scoreless in the fourth quarter.
Spikes remembers too. Plays the nightmare out every day in
practice. Feels it. Uses it as a motivator. "We practiced so
hard for that Georgia game," he says. "I think everybody's hopes
got so high that by the fourth quarter when it happened, we just
couldn't believe it. After that game, we sort of went downhill.
That game cursed us."
The Tigers recovered in time to defeat Army 32-29 in the
Independence Bowl (the Cadets missed a game-tying 27-yard field
goal with 29 seconds left), but that victory was bittersweet for
a team that had gone 11-0 in '93 and 9-1-1 in '94. "There was a
time when a bad season for Auburn was five or six wins," Bowden
says. "These guys have gotten Auburn to a point where eight wins
make them feel unfulfilled. That's why we're excited about this
year, because we're ready to be fulfilled again."
The centerpiece of the defense is Spikes, an honorable mention
All-America last season, who is among 10 returning defensive
starters. He and fellow inside linebacker Ricky Neal combined
for 230 tackles in '96. On offense, senior quarterback Dameyune
Craig, who passed for 2,296 yards and 16 TDs in '96, will again
be looking for senior wideout Tyrone Goodson and junior wideout
Karsten Bailey. Senior Fred Beasley, who began his career as a
200-pound tailback, has bulked up to 220 pounds and will start
at fullback. Sophomore Rusty Williams, who started six of
Auburn's last seven games at tailback and rushed for a team-high
439 yards on 80 carries, will try to pick up where he left off.
Will this be another 8-4 season? Could be, with Virginia
replacing Alabama-Birmingham as the season opener and an SEC
schedule that includes LSU, Florida, Mississippi State and
Alabama. Bowden, however, says his players have a new resolve.
"A season like last year serves to make you hungry again," he
says. "It makes you realize how close you are to winning a lot
of ball games." --R.P.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS WITH CRAIG AT THE HELM, THE TIGERS VOW NOT TO FALL SHORT OF EXPECTATIONS AGAIN [Dameyune Craig in game]
27-3 The Tigers record under coach Terry Bowden when they score
TWO GAMES TO WATCH
OCT. 18 VS. FLORIDA The Tigers gave up an average of 50 points
in their '95 and '96 losses to the Gators.
NOV. 22 VS. ALABAMA This one should go down to the wire. Five of
the last six meetings have been decided by eight points or less.
Passing Dameyune Craig Sr. 169 comp., 310 att.,
2,296 yds., 16 TDs
Rushing Rusty Williams Soph. 439 yds., 4 TDs
Receiving Karsten Bailey Jr. 45 catches, 592 yds, 3 TDs
Tackles LB Takeo Spikes Jr. 119
Interceptions FS Brad Ware Soph. 4
CB Jason Bray Jr. 4