"Saw Off Varsity's Horns. Short."
-- From the Texas A&M Fight Song
The Aggies have written their vehement anti-Texas sentiments down in their fight song and in the framework of their 40-foot-high, 8,000-log bonfire. For the past several months, Auburn has been passing out bumper stickers that insult Alabama with, "Avoid the Rush, Hate the Tide Early." A Florida State boosters' tavern this week solemnized its ritual dislike of Florida with a continuous 100-hour "Beat-The-Gators" rally.
The last week of grand passion in college football begins today, offering some of the most bitterly contested annual games. Self-esteem, quality of life for the next year and the rest of the bowl bids depend on the outcomes when Texas travels to No. 15 Texas A&M today to determine the Southwest Conference title and No. 18 Alabama meets No. 7 Auburn at Legion Field in Birmingham Friday for the Southeastern Conference championship.
Saturday, Florida will greet No. 3 Florida State in a grudge match and No. 2 Miami will host No. 10 Notre Dame in a growing intersectional rivalry.
"I have walked into a whirlwind," is how first-year Alabama Coach Bill Curry described it.
When Alabama (7-3, 4-1) and Auburn (8-1-1, 4-0-1) play at Legion Field this one day each year, the stadium is transformed into something called the Iron Bowl, with the crowd divided evenly between shrieking Crimson Tide and shrill Tigers fans. If Auburn wins, the Tigers will claim the Sugar Bowl berth outright, while the Tide is seething because a victory would only gain it a piece of the SEC title along with Louisiana State, with the Bayou Bengals going to the Sugar Bowl on the basis of higher ranking.
Matters are even more argumentative than usual because Auburn is insisting that, after next season, the game that began in 1892 should be alternated between home fields. Alabama claims it would rather quit the series entirely than ever set foot at Auburn, where it says it just wouldn't feel safe after the Tigers turned fire hoses on Georgia fans last year, breaking one man's hip.
Part of it is simple resentment of the Tigers, who have the best defense in the SEC, giving up just 11.6 points a game, and the best quarterback in Jeff Burger, who has thrown for 1,938 yards and 13 touchdowns. Alabama brings a curious team that has lost to Memphis State one week and beat LSU the next, and revolves around Bobby Humphrey, who has rushed for 1,172 yards and is also its leading receiver and scorer, with 13 touchdowns.
If Alabama wins, it will go to the Gator Bowl, while Auburn will go to the Hall of Fame Bowl. As for all those other issues, Curry just says he'll play where they tell him to.
In College Station, ancient enemies Texas (6-4, 5-1) and Texas A&M (8-2, 5-1) will decide the Southwest Conference title and Cotton Bowl berth head to head for only the third time in the history of this matchup, which dates to 1894, and the winner will get to host the Fighting Irish on New Year's Day.
The Aggies had 40,000 at "yell practice" in anticipation of their third consecutive conference title. It took two weeks and shifts around the clock to build the famous annual bonfire, which was actually cut down in size by a city ordinance this year because its burning ashes have, in the past, threatened nearby houses.
It will take longer than that for Texas to rebuild, but should the Longhorns get to the Cotton Bowl for the first time since 1983, first-year head coach David McWilliams will be credited with a remarkable job. Turnovers remain their biggest problem; in six victories, they gave up five, while in four losses they lost 27, including 13 interceptions by Bret Stafford. Their offensive strength is Eric Metcalf, the running back from Arlington, Va., who is second nationally in all-purpose yards, averaging 183.9 a game.
The Aggies, are heavy favorites, however, with a defense rated sixth in the nation and freshman running back Darren Lewis, who has 655 yards and eight touchdowns.
Just because the Florida-Florida State rivalry didn't start until the 1940s doesn't mean it lacks feeling. Florida (5-4) is already going to the Aloha Bowl, while Florida State (9-1) is in the Fiesta, but there is regional pride and the Seminoles' outside chance at a national championship at stake. They have suffered six straight losses to the Gators, but are finally favored, and a victory would mark Coach Bobby Bowden's 100th at the school.
Florida State's offense is No. 2 in the country behind Oklahoma, with Danny McManus throwing for 1,832 yards and 14 touchdowns and Sammie Smith rushing for 1,114 yards. Florida has Kerwin Bell, who has completed 128 of 218 passes for 1,655 yards and nine touchdowns, but has 10 interceptions, while halfback Emmitt Smith has 1,241 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Perhaps the most important national game is in Miami, where Notre Dame (8-2) will try to ruin the Hurricanes' unbeaten (9-0) season. This is a far happier Fighting Irish team than the one that went to Miami two years ago for Gerry Faust's final game. It was a 58-7 debacle, Miami was accused of running up the score and the Irish are selling buttons that say "The Irish Never Forget," which worries Hurricanes Coach Jimmy Johnson.
Two opposite offensive styles are featured, the Irish with their improvisational option led by Tony Rice and averaging 402 yards, and Miami's pro style attack, which is only getting better with Steve Walsh, who has completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,743 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Irish are far more dangerous than the record indicates, their schedule including eight bowl-bound teams, but Miami still has to be the favorite.
"They're chasing the national championship. They're going to the Orange Bowl," Coach Lou Holtz said. "No doubt this is an important game for anyone who ever cheered for Miami. I can't think of a more difficult set of circumstances."