In a salvaging operation, Alabama extracted a measure of satisfaction by upsetting Auburn 17-15 last Saturday to knock the Tigers out of the Sugar Bowl. A collective sigh of relief went up from the Alabama side when Auburn disdained a chance at a short, go-ahead field goal late in the game. The Tigers instead elected to run on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but were stopped short.
The victory was one of the few bright spots in Alabama's first losing season in 27 years. It wasn't so bright, though, that critics of Coach Ray Perkins will go into hiding for long.
Some, it's safe to say, are hoping rumors of his departure come true. Reports have circulated that Perkins, the former coach of the New York Giants, may return to the National Football League to guide the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He denies, however, that such a move is afoot. Replacing a legend is never easy , and Perkins followed about the biggest of all. Bear Bryant had won more games (323) than any coach in history when he retired at the end of the 1982 season. While respecting his former mentor's legacy, Perkins has been his own man. In somewhat symbolic gesture, for example, he took down Bryant's famed coaching tower.
In his first season, he duplicated Bryant's final 8-4 campaign. That kept the wolves at bay until this season's collapse, which has seen the school's string of 25 consecutive bowl appearances snapped.
The team's problems began in the opening game, when top running back, Kerry Goode, was lost to injury during Boston College's come-from-behind victory. Then , too, an inexperienced quarterbacking corps developed more slowly than expected. The important thing, Perkins feels, is that a solid foundation has been laid for future growth. But that doesn't necessarily translate into contention for the national championship, which Alabama last won in 1979, or a single-digit ranking. These were lofty, yet realistic goals under the charismatic Bryant, who infused the program with a certain mystique. It remains to be seen if his business-like successor can restore this intangible edge.
If nothing else, Alabama has won a battle for state bragging rights. Long the ''other Alabama school,'' Auburn had begun to outrecruit the Crimson Tide during Bryant's latter years. But now 'Bama has a trump card to use in talks with the state's top high school prospects.
Last Saturday's 85th Army-Navy game was back where it belongs. No, I don't mean back in Philadelphia after being held in Pasadena the previous season, although that was the case. I mean back in the hearts and minds of fans as a legitimately interesting national attraction.
West Point, you might say, has begun to hold up its end of the bargain, fielding the kind of team that does the academy justice. That hadn't been tne case in recent years, but Army appears back on track. The Cadets' 28-11 victory indicates as much. The win was Army's first over Navy since 1977 and capped an impressive 7-3-1 season. Now it's on to the Cherry Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., to meet Michigan State Dec. 22 in the school's first-ever bowl.
The team's offensive catalyst is quarterback Nate Sassaman, as gutsy a field general as you'll find. A converted defensive back, he played the last four games with injured ribs, yet still managed to rush for 154 yards out of the wishbone against Navy and 1,002 yards on the season. The Middies were no soft touch, either, having earlier upset second-ranked South Carolina and been handed a narrow loss to Notre Dame in a disputed finish.
Naysayers speak out
When ABC Sports decided to have some fun last weekend with ''The Great BYU Debate,'' the results were predicatably mixed. More viewers called in to oppose Brigham Young University's elevation to No. 1 than to support it. The television poll was reasonably close, though, with 191,336 nays to 166,590 yeas. The vote was more popularity contest than scientific poll, with viewers calling in their opinions at 50 cents a pop.
No survey was taken to find out which team anti-BYU voters favored for No. 1, but second-ranked Oklahoma would logically move up if the Cougars faltered in the Holiday Bowl Dec. 21. And falter in this case might not necessarily mean ''lose.'' Even an unconvincing win over a mediocre, 6-5 Michigan team could prompt wire service pollsters to promote No. 2 Oklahoma if it beats No. 4 Washington in the Orange Bowl.