The Florida Gators, the best team you'll never see, may well be No. 1 tonight in college football because, in a bruiser of a game, the classic comeback ended with the classic pass.

When sophomore quarterback Kerwin Bell lofted his "most important pass ever" toward senior Ray McDonald's fingertips with seven minutes to play for an eight-yard touchdown that gave the Gators their 14-10 victory over Auburn, McDonald was so excited his mouthpiece fell out.

He also nearly spiked the ball, but realized that's against the rules and restrained himself.

Who could blame him? Because of his catch, the Gators, on probation (thus not allowed to play on television) but ranked second by the Associated Press, finally took care of the irrepressible, sixth-ranked Tigers (6-2) to run their record to 7-0-1 and unbeaten streak to 18 games.

With top-ranked Iowa losing to Ohio State, Florida likely will be No. 1 in the AP poll. (UPI does not rank teams on probation.)

None of the legalities mattered today before an estimated 75,000 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where you couldn't tell the good guys from the bad. (Auburn and Florida both wear orange and blue, so who knows who everyone was cheering for?)

Wrap this game up and save it for posterity: the true Southern college game, so loud you couldn't hear yourself think, so well-played, so off-tackle, so, well, gritty.

But add this warning, in retrospect from Auburn Coach Pat Dye, to the package:

"It wasn't no place for no women and children."

It also turned out to be no place for Auburn running back Bo Jackson, who leads the nation with 1,402 yards rushing but disappeared for most of the second half with a bruised thigh.

Jackson, the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, was injured two minutes before halftime and limped off the field. After gaining 48 yards on 15 carries in the first half, he ran only once and gained nothing in the second.

"I really wanted to get back out there and play in the second half, but I started to have spasms and was very frustrated not to get to play," Jackson said.

In Auburn's only other loss, 38-20 at Tennessee, Jackson also missed most of the second half with a bruised knee.

Alonzo Johnson, Florida's highly regarded outside linebacker, wondered about this after the game.

"I guess he's not worried about his college career," Johnson said. "He's already won the Heisman and everything. He wants to not play . . . He doesn't want to get hurt. He wants to worry about the money (in the NFL) and everything."

Johnson said the Gators' defense, which stopped two desperation drives by Auburn late in the game in Auburn territory, wanted Jackson to play the whole game.

"It surprised me he didn't," Johnson said. "Everywhere we went, all we heard about was Bo Jackson. I was mad. Now, we can go back and say, 'What about Bo Jackson?' "

What about this game? Florida led, 7-3, at halftime on a three-yard pass from Bell to McDonald in the second quarter after a 46-yard field goal by Auburn's Chris Johnson in the first.

But the really important players in the first half, and even into the third quarter, were the punters. Florida's Ray Criswell punted nine times for a 47.1-yard average; Auburn's Lewis Colbert eight times for a 41.8-yard average.

It was a game of field position, two teams shoving each other around on a Saturday afternoon.

As Bell said, "It probably was the worst field position we've ever had since I've been here. But the idea was to keep it close and pull it out at the end."

Things started cooking late in the third quarter when one of those Auburn punts pinned Florida back at its one. Criswell's punt four plays later from his end zone went to midfield, but Auburn's Trey Gainous returned it 10 yards to the Florida 42.

In nine plays, the Tigers were ahead, 10-7, early in the fourth quarter after quarterback Pat Washington ran the option around a hole at left tackle for a two-yard touchdown.

Minutes later, Florida was forced to punt by a scrambling, wild Auburn defense, and, with 11 minutes to play, things looked good for the Tigers.

Just as quickly, the game swung back to the Gators. Auburn punted and Florida took over on its 39. Moments later, on second-and-10 at the Auburn 41, fullback John L. Williams burst a draw play 36 yards down the sideline to the six.

A loss of two to the eight set up the winning touchdown. Bell, a country boy from tiny Day, Fla., with a wisp of a moustache, called "81 Fade."

It's a simple pass for a quarterback. Bell picks out a spot in the end zone and throws to it. He doesn't even consider the receiver. Just look and throw.

At the last second, it's McDonald's job to look over his shoulder and grab the ball. But this time, when McDonald looked over his shoulder, he didn't see what he expected to see.

"He usually lofts it," McDonald said. "But he put a particular zip on it that made it harder."

The ball hit the top of McDonald's fingertips and he fell into the corner of the end zone, cradling it.

Bell ran over to him. "Spectacular grab!" he yelled.

As McDonald shrugged in the locker room, "It was reachable."

He gathered up his mouthpiece ("I guess it fell out from all the excitement," he said, smiling) and dashed off the field.

The game matching the highest-ranked teams to ever play in this little town was over, and his team had won it.