It wasn’t that long ago we were celebrating a 40-17 beatdown of the Georgia Bulldogs. At the time, UGA entered the contest ranked #1 but that would not last long after Auburn promptly “whooped the dog crap out of them”. Kirby Smart’s crew was sent home with their tail’s tucked but hungry for vengeance.
Saturday night they got that vengeance.
The truth is for about three quarters this was a somewhat even game though you could feel it trending to the guys wearing red and black. Heading into the 4th quarter, Auburn had compiled 237 yards of offense while Georgia had racked up somewhere around 250 yards themselves. But a Kerryon Johnson fumble to start the final fifteen minutes would be the final straw needed to break the Tigers’ back. The Tigers’ offense would gain only 22 more yards while the Bulldogs would add two touchdowns and gain 150+ yards. Georgia owned the 4th quarter and in doing so, claimed their first SEC title since 2005.
There are a lot of different things you can point to as reasons why Georgia proved superior Saturday. The Dawgs ran a lot more stunts up front, confusing Auburn’s offensive line, leading to a better pass rush and a stymied rushing attack. Kerryon Johnson’s health no doubt affected Auburn’s gameplan and the apparent lack of trust by the coaching staff in his backups meant the Tigers’ ground game was a shadow of it’s previous self. Georgia’s offensive line seemed better prepared and ready for Auburn’s pass rush and by the end of the game were driving Auburn’s dominant front four off the ball. Jim Chaney clearly studied the Iron Bowl tape and saw that Alabama had some success on the perimeter and elected to pound Auburn with the outside running game resulting in a tired front 7 by the end of the contest.
All these are great reasons why Georgia won by three touchdowns but if you wanted to simplify things, I think you could. When it was time to make a championship play, it was Georgia, not Auburn, that came through time and time again.
There were three very specific moments that stood out the most during my rewatch.
Jarrett Stidham’s Fumble
Auburn got off to a fast start which is actually a really bad thing to do in Auburn-Georgia games. The team that has scored the first touchdown in the last five contests has lost. Auburn has been that team four times.... That’s a very irritating statistic.
Random stats aside, Auburn looked strong out the gates. The Tigers drove right down the field on their first drive and put a touchdown on the board. After a miserable second drive, the Tigers were on the move again early in the second quarter. However, Auburn got bogged down in the redzone and were facing a 3rd & 6 situation when this happened.
Austin Golson just gets beat around the edge by Davin Bellamy. Stidham feels the pressure but I don’t think he actually sees where it’s coming from. He attempts to roll out right and keep the play alive but he doesn’t secure the football. Give Bellamy a ton of credit, he does a great job of not only bringing Stidham down but swiping the ball out as well. Auburn’s Casey Dunn has a clear chance at a recovery but the ball squirts away from him and the Dawgs recover.
But while the fumble itself hurt, it’s what happened after the fumble that changed the game. This was the fourth straight game Auburn fumbled in the redzone. However, the previous 3 times did not result in any points for Auburn’s opponents. Against Georgia back in November, Auburn was able to recover the bobbled snap and kick a field goal. The next week against ULM, the Warhawks recovered the ball but a Nick Ruffin pick 6 would negate any chance of a late comeback. Then against Alabama, the Tiger defense stood tall and forced a three out.
This time? A 7 play 84 yard touchdown drive.
Georgia did what Auburn’s three previous opponents (themselves included) couldn’t do and that’s turn an Auburn turnover into a touchdown. But even on that drive it took a big time play for this Dawg offense to eventually find the endzone. Auburn’s defense actually forced a 3rd & long early in the drive. The Tigers have come to dominate 3rd down on defense and honestly did it again Saturday holding UGA to only 2 conversions on 11 attempts. However, it was one of those two conversions that proved huge for Georgia’s offense.
Give this Bulldog offensive line a ton of credit. Auburn eviscerated them on chances like these the first go around but on this play they stood tall. Jake Fromm was given enough time to wait for Mecole Hardman to get some separation from Carlton Davis and UGA was able to keep the chains moving. They would tie the game up just a few plays later.
Blocked Field Goal
The second really big moment came in the third quarter. Despite a painful 2nd quarter, Auburn was still very much in this football game. Georgia’s offense moved the ball a bit on their first possession of the 2nd half but the Tiger defense was able to force a punt. That’s when Auburn started moving the ball back down the field. But almost eerily, Auburn found themselves facing another 3rd & 6 from virtually the exact same spot on the field. Once again Auburn couldn’t convert.
This is a well timed blitz by the Bulldogs. The would be blitzer lines up like he’s going to cover Will Hastings but right on the snap he comes flying in after Stidham. It looks like he’s gonna get a clean shot but somehow Braden Smith sees him and peels back, saving Stidham from a kill shot. By that point, Stidham had already decided to scramble but there’s nowhere to go. The Dawgs rip him down before he can reach the first down marker and that means its field goal time. What could go wrong?
For the third time this season Auburn had a field goal blocked. This kick just looked messed up from the beginning. Daniel Carlson starts leaning a bit forward before the snap seeming to expect it half a second earlier. Then there’s the snap itself which is high and outside forcing Stovall to take a bit longer to get the ball down. While all of that is happening, Auburn’s right side of the protection is getting blown off the ball. The kick is low and the Dawgs get the block and keep their 3 point lead. This was really the last time Auburn would threaten to score.
It’s not a coincidence that two of Auburn’s biggest bugaboos in the final weeks of the season lead to missed scoring opportunities. These were problems that Auburn just never seemed to be able to fix. You can only fumble the ball so many times in the redzone before it comes back to bite you. Auburn had been fortunate on the two previous field goal blocks against Texas A&M that Auburn was a far superior team and was able to score on other opportunities. That was not the case Saturday.
Kerryon Johnson’s Fumble
The most painful and honestly heartbreaking moment for the Tigers happened to start the 4th quarter. Still only down one score and starting to move the ball again, disaster struck one final time for this offense.
This was Kerryon Johnson’s first fumble of the season and oh man was it a tough one. Auburn’s star runningback was trying to fight through some obvious shoulder pain but a perfectly timed jab knocked the ball free from the usually reliable KJ and Georgia once again recovered. Auburn’s defense would subsequently collapse and that was all she wrote.
I really hated that it was Johnson that fumbled in this moment. This kid has been Auburn’s everything all season long and to see his chance at an SEC title end this way was heartbreaking. I respect the hell out of how hard Johnson plays and he’s been an amazing ambassador for Auburn football and Auburn University. But when it rains, it pours and this would prove the final costly mistake for the Tigers.
Credit this Bulldog team. When a big time play needed to be made, they more often than not made it. I was incredibly impressed with the improvement of their offensive line which in turn gave Jake Fromm the time to make some key plays through the air. Defensively, UGA made sure that the quick screen plays wouldn’t beat them again and made sure Auburn didn’t get a cheap one over the top. They forced this Auburn offense to drive the length of the field and it was clear that the Tigers just couldn’t do it consistently. The result is a championship and a ticket to the playoffs for Georgia and a whole lot of “what ifs” for Auburn.
Unfortunately, this section is depressingly short today. The good news is the one touchdown Auburn gifted us was beautiful to watch unfold so that’s something at least....
I absolutely love this play. Auburn uses Will Hastings as a decoy and it helps open up the middle enough for the Nate Craig-Myers touchdown. Hastings goes in motion and you can see the DB on NCM shift some outside. The 2nd angle then shows what really helps this play succeed. Craig-Myers hesitates like he’s going to block, the DB slides even further outside anticipating Hastings getting the football and then Craig-Myers blows right by him for the touchdown. Absolutely beautiful throw as well and perfectly timed. I want more of this in the redzone next season.
Bowl Game & Beyond
Well here we are at the end of another season. It’s tough to swallow the bitter pill of defeat in the SEC Championship Game while also grappling with the fact that Auburn’s two outstanding home victories meant nothing in the grand scheme of things as both Georgia and Alabama find themselves in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Auburn heads to the Peach Bowl with the worst matchup of the group facing an undefeated UCF team. It’s a lose-lose situation for the Tigers as a win is expected and a loss will result in an offseason of jokes at Auburn’s expense. It’s very easy to let this past weekend leave you feeling negative about this football season.
Don’t let it.
Those 2 wins at home DID mean something. It allowed Auburn to even have a shot at an SEC title and more. It showed that Alabama and Georgia aren’t light years ahead of our program but that we are in fact in the same tier right now. It was a huge boost to Auburn’s recruiting efforts. It was also damn fun to watch.
This season did not end as we had hoped but this is as stable a football program as Auburn has had in a long time. In 2010, Auburn rode one of the greatest CFB players of all time and a senior laden team to a national championship. In 2013, it took some luck (UGA game NOT the Bama game) and heroics at the end of the season to give Auburn a berth in the SEC Championship and eventually the national title game. But there were serious issues with that defense that eventually lead to a BCS title loss and a collapse in 2014.
Not the case this year. This was a good team top to bottom. Yes, Kerryon Johnson and Jarrett Stidham are crucial pieces to this offense and losing both would probably hurt Auburn’s chances of repeating as SEC West champs. But defensively the Tigers will reload with most of the front seven expected to return and at least five defensive backs who have seen the field against top competition coming back. Offensively, Auburn returns all of their wide receivers, three offensive lineman who have played a ton of snaps and most likely their star QB. The Tigers are on pace to sign their 6th straight top 10 recruiting class. I 100% believe and agree with Gus Malzahn when he says Auburn has the pieces and the foundation in place to be really good for awhile right now.
It won’t always result in championships and there will be some rough moments but Auburn is in a position to maintain sustained success and battle out Alabama and Georgia each season for SEC supremacy. You can’t ask for much more than that.
So enjoy this 2017 football season, knowing that it’s a taste of what is to come. Cheer hard for this team to hand a 3rd undefeated team their first loss and let’s head into the offseason with some real momentum and an 11 win team. The seniors on this squad absolutely deserve it and for the young guys it could be a chance to build on something for the 2018 season. Auburn was a darn good football team in 2017. In fact, I think by the end of the season they were one of the top 5 teams in the country. They are the 2017 SEC West Champions, undefeated at home and conquerer of #1 teams. It was a fun year and the best is yet to come.