NEW ORLEANS, DEC. 31 -- Fourth-ranked Syracuse -- still giddy over playing on New Year's Day and clinging to extemely faint hopes of a national championship -- will try to channel its enthusiasm into beating sixth-ranked Auburn beginning at 3:30 p.m. (WJZ-TV-7, WJLA-TV-13) Friday in the 54th annual Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome.
Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson, who gives new meaning to stream of consciousness thought and discussion, today said at a luncheon that he hopes his team can live up to some of the previous Sugar Bowl teams.
"If they don't know who they are or what they're doing in New Orleans," MacPherson said of what he'll tell his team, "we'll make sure they know that Nebraska has been here, Louisiana State, Tennessee, Miami of Florida, Auburn, Michigan, Penn State -- those are the kind of people we want to grow up to be."
He then rattled off nine former Sugar Bowl MVPs, beginning with Bo Jackson, formerly of Auburn but now with the Los Angeles Raiders or Kansas City Royals depending on the season.
"And speaking of Bo Jackson," said MacPherson, who was the only one doing so, "I got a call from Al Davis, who is a Syracuse grad and managing general partner of the Raiders. He said Bo Jackson was needling him about this game and he wanted me to have a chance to tell our guys what Bo was saying."
In between praising the Tigers' defense and thanking former New York governor Hugh Carey for helping Syracuse get $15 million to build the Carrier Dome, MacPherson wondered aloud: "Are we going to show up? Are we going to be able to play? This is the kind of stuff we have to think about between now and Friday afternoon."
They had best be ready if they want to have even a chance of being discussed for a national championship. They are extreme longshots, simply because the only other two 11-0 teams are No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Miami, which will play Friday night in the Orange Bowl. To have a chance for a national title, Syracuse would have to beat Auburn convincingly, then hope that Nebraska beats No. 3 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl and that Miami and Oklahoma play to a tie.
MacPherson said he had not discussed a national championship with his players. "Not a lick," he said. "Why the hell talk about something that we've got to do something about before we've talked about the other thing."
"In the 1980s there's only been four teams that have gone 12-0 and all have been national champions," he said of Georgia (1980), Clemson (1981), Brigham Young, (13-0 in 1984) and Penn State (1986). "So all we have to do is to be 12-0 and then we don't have to say anything."
Auburn (9-1-1) and Syracuse are two very good teams. The Tigers lost only once, 34-6, to Florida State, and tied Tennessee, 20-20. Syracuse, which was 5-6 last year, had an easier schedule, but did beat Maryland, Penn State, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
Some see Auburn as the favorite, though Coach Pat Dye employed the transitive property of mathematics in saying his team should be the underdog.
"We tied Tennessee, and Boston College beat Tennessee," he said. "And Syracuse dominated Boston College."
Auburn has relied on the passing of Jeff Burger, who, when he wasn't in the headlines for off-the-field problems, created problems for opponents, throwing for more than 200 yards in five games. Late in the year the Tigers finally developed a running game. Redshirt freshman tailback Stacy Danley had just four carries for 18 yards in the first six games, but then had 90 carries for 450 yards in the last five. He had 157 in the finale against Alabama.
Auburn will need that effective running to keep the ball away from Syracuse. How well they do may corrolate with how effective Syracuse nose guard Ted Gregory can be after having arthroscopic knee surgery Nov. 16. In the first seven games, Syracuse allowed 79.4 yards per game on the ground. In the last four, which he missed, the Orange allowed 199.3 per game.
Quarterback Don McPherson is the catalyst in the Syracuse option-oriented offense, but the key has been balance. With Daryl Johnston, Robert Drummond and Michael Owens all rushing for more than 500 yards this season, McPherson never threw more than 28 times in a game, which had a great deal to do with why he led the nation in passing efficiency (164.3 rating). And the Orangemen never scored fewer than 24 points.
But the Tigers led the Southeastern Conference by allowing only 10.55 points per game. They have solid linebackers in Aundray Bruce and Kurt Crain. They will be without all-SEC cornerback Kevin Porter, ineligible because he signed with an agent. Redshirt freshman Perry Reed will replace him.
"I hope it's going to be a very close game," Dye said, "because if it's not a very close game we'll probably be on the wrong end. I'd hate to get into a high-scoring affair. We don't have a high-scoring affair kind of offense."