Here’s the deal. People say that Auburn football’s an extreme roller coaster. That’s not quite going far enough. Auburn football’s more like an entire theme park with roller coasters that nobody’s ever ridden before, and nobody can really tell you “Oh, this one’s fun,” or “This one will make you vomit,” or “there’s this one part that’s cool, but the rest of it just kind of bangs your head against the restraint and it hurts a little” (looking at you, Ninja @ Six Flags Over Georgia).
Nobody really expected that we’d be 5-3 at this point in the season. We’re two-thirds of the way through, and there hasn’t been all that much to get excited about. The win over Washington was great, and that’s probably the reason why many Auburn fans hit the eject button after the losses to LSU, Mississippi State, and Tennessee. We started with an absolute bang. Now, we’re at the part of the ride where many want it to be over.
The win over Ole Miss at least stopped the bleeding, and the bye week may help Auburn get rested and ready for the final stretch run. It’s going to be a rough one. Home against Texas A&M, at Georgia, home against Liberty, and at Alabama is no way to finish the year if you’re a team that’s struggled to find its identity. Auburn finally ran the ball well at Ole Miss, but that’s Ole Miss. Now you’ve got to do it against three of the better teams in the league. What a way to finish. Now let’s look at all four possible outcomes record-wise to finish up this year.
AUBURN FINISHES 0-4 IN NOVEMBER (5-7 Final Record)
Apocalypse scenario. Let’s get it out of the way first. It’s probably likely that Auburn’s only favored in one game the rest of the way (Liberty), but that’s not a game that Gus Malzahn can afford to mess around with. First of all, the Tigers have never beaten Texas A&M in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the Aggies have the second-best rushing defense in the country. This is likely going to be a game that we’ll need an efficient, turnover-free game from Jarrett Stidham to win.
After that, Georgia on the road? Never easy. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be this huge hulking target of revenge since they got their shot in on us last year at the SEC Championship. The Bulldogs have their own problems (defense hasn’t been great and they’re struggling to find the right mix with Jake Fromm and Justin Fields), but it won’t surprise anyone if Auburn loses in Athens.
Let’s say we’re 5-5 with the final home game against Liberty coming up. Do you remember the following pre-Iron Bowl games?
- 2017 - Auburn vs Louisiana-Monroe - tied 7-7 until the final minute of the first half when Auburn put up a sheer “we’re better than you” touchdown.
- 2015 - Auburn vs Idaho - the Vandals outgain the Tigers and put up 34 points in a game that’s not nearly as comfortable as the 56-34 final score would indicate.
- 2014 - Auburn vs Samford - a scoreless first quarter turns into a tense game as the Bulldogs take a 7-0 lead midway through the second quarter. Auburn posts seventeen quick points before halftime and wins 31-7.
These are the typical games where Gus shows literally nothing on tape for Nick Saban to dissect, but does nothing to prepare for the opponent either. We haven’t lost one of those game, but Liberty is a little different than those teams. The Flames are a top twenty offense in yards per game (475 ypg), and 36th in the country in scoring (33.7 ppg). The defense is bad, but we don’t want to get into a shootout while definitely looking ahead to Alabama. Oh, and Turner Gill is the head coach, so be prepared to rehash that whole coaching search leading up to the game as well.
Anyway, worst case scenario, Auburn loses to Liberty, then to Alabama on the road, and failing to make a bowl would most likely lose Gus Malzahn his job. There’s no way around that. Then the coaching search begins almost immediately after the Iron Bowl when Black Monday sees the carousel start to spin around the country.
Likelihood of happening: 0.01%
AUBURN FINISHES 1-3 IN NOVEMBER (6-6 Final Record)
It’s the above situation without the loss to Liberty, and likely with Gus staying on as head coach, but with a very warm cushion underneath him. We’re looking at Birmingham Bowl if this scenario plays out. We may also see some changes in staffing if Auburn only finishes 6-6, but who knows where that ends up coming from.
Now (and this is just a crazy situation) what would be interesting to see is what happens if Auburn wins one of the November SEC games and loses to Liberty. That won’t happen, but I wonder what kind of pressure that would put the head coach under. Food for thought.
Likelihood of happening: 30%
AUBURN FINISHES 2-2 IN NOVEMBER (7-5 Final Record)
Now we can start to have a little fun. Let’s assume Liberty’s one of these wins, so that means we’re probably looking at Texas A&M at home, right?
Yeah, it would totally suck to lose to the Aggies and Jimbo Fisher again, but how many among us would trade a loss to A&M for a win against either Georgia or Alabama on the road? Georgia still has dreams to sneak in to the College Football Playoff as an at-large team. If Auburn beats the Dawgs in Athens, a two-loss team likely doesn’t make it with Notre Dame favored to win out. Gus Malzahn is 2-4 against Georgia, and a win here would be so sweet. They’re just not great this season either. The losses of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Roquan Smith, and Lorenzo Carter weren’t as easy to replace as you might think. What’s more, Georgia’s dealing with the classic two-quarterback dilemma. With Jake Fromm struggling at times, Kirby Smart’s trying to find ways to get Justin Fields involved. Since Fromm’s only a sophomore, Fields is going to have to wait his turn to be the guy unless there’s a Tua situation in Athens. Right now, Georgia has two quarterbacks, so really they have none. Watch what happens this weekend in Jacksonville to see how they respond against another good defense.
The point is that Georgia’s got problems. They’re not the team they were last year, and it’s not a total lock that Auburn goes and loses at Sanford Stadium. A win over the Bulldogs definitely keeps Gus’ seat a little more comfortable than it’s probably feeling right now.
Likelihood of happening: 45%
AUBURN FINISHES 3-1 IN NOVEMBER (8-4 Final Record)
Okay, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention. I think we all know what a 3-1 run in November means. That’s us winning out until the Iron Bowl. Like I said above, count Liberty as a win. I’ve already laid out the reasons why we can beat Georgia, but Texas A&M would have to be a win at home for this scenario to happen.
The Aggies are a slightly-above-average offense (49th in scoring, 14th ypg, 55th turnovers nationally), so chances are they won’t score much against the Auburn defense. Kellen Mond is a dual-threat guy, and we did have trouble against Nick Fitzgerald in that regard, but with a better game plan things will change.
Texas A&M’s biggest bonus right now is that they’ve already seen the best the country has to offer. The Aggies came within a hair of beating Clemson at home, and hung around with Alabama in Tuscaloosa for about twenty minutes before the Tide turned it on. But the wins? They’re not much to write home about.
A&M beat Northwestern State and Louisiana-Monroe before September was over. They escaped Arkansas in Dallas by a touchdown, beat Kentucky in overtime by six, and got by South Carolina by just three. Looking at the numbers, the A&M offense bumbled around in all of those games, while the defense stood tall and limited the opposition to very little. I’m not impressed. Auburn can beat this team at home. Auburn can limit that offense, and with a week off, may be able to get fully healthy so that they can put up some points.
Both Texas A&M and Georgia are winnable games. It’s not totally crazy to think that we win out until Tuscaloosa.
Likelihood of happening: 22%
AUBURN FINISHES 4-0 IN NOVEMBER (9-3 Final Record)
And here’s where it gets crazy. For Auburn to finish 4-0 in the final month of the season, the Tigers would need to beat three teams ranked in the top sixteen as of now, along with a strong G5 team in Liberty. It would be quite a turnaround from the past few weeks, but it’s possible.
Auburn beats Texas A&M at home, and everyone gets a good feeling. Then the Tigers go on the road and end Georgia’s Playoff hopes. Everyone’s hype. Liberty’s a bit of a hassle in the first half, but it turns out as an easy win (with everyone knowing full well that Gus spent the week prepping for Alabama), and then we turn our attention to the Tide.
There’s no getting around it. Alabama’s been the best team in the country this year by far. By far. Not even the most blind of Orange and Truthers could argue otherwise. Tua’s going to win their third Heisman unless he throws three picks in every game the rest of the way, and Alabama loses multiple times (won’t happen). They lead the country in scoring (54.1 ppg), total offense (564 ypg), they’re second in yards per play (8.3), and sixth in turnovers (0.8 per game). It’s a tough task to even envision a way to slow that attack down.
Even if you do manage to hold Alabama to, let’s say, 35 points, that means you still have to score 35 points yourself. Fortunately for us, there’s a way to keep it close.
Alabama’s defense plainly isn’t the dominating unit that it’s been over the past decade. It’s very good, but it’s not elite. It’s not the 2011 defense that allowed about eight points per game. Sure, they don’t have to be great right now. There’s no way another team can keep up with the Tide offense. What Alabama’s done this year is to bank on the fact that once they force you to punt, you’re done. Tua and company will score, and then you’re on roller skates. Then you change your offense to try and come back, but that results in turnovers because you’re not working with something you’re good at.
Mostly this happens because every team that’s taken the field opposite Alabama this year has been like some pudgy middle-aged guy having to walk eighteen holes with Tiger Woods in 2002. You’re beaten before the ball’s ever snapped. Everyone’s come in scared, and Alabama’s never had an issue.
But, like Tiger back in the day, what’s the actual competition? It’s not Tiger vs Rory, Spieth, Stenson, DJ. It’s Tiger vs Jeff Sluman, Fred Funk, Paul Lawrie. There are criticisms about Alabama’s schedule thus far that are totally warranted. The Tide have played nobody of consequence. Texas A&M is the best win, and we just went through why the Aggies aren’t anything to write home about above. The rest of the schedule is Louisville, Arkansas State, Ole Miss, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. I’d wager that most of the current top ten would be undefeated against that group as well.
And we’ll finish with the biggest reason that Auburn can hang with Alabama.
Gus knows how to coach against this team. He’s the only coach in the SEC that knows how. He’s 2-3 against the Tide thus far, with the three losses coming because 1) Thanks for nothing, Ellis Johnson 2)Jeremy Johnson at QB & 3) Jeremy Johnson at QB.
If Auburn goes in and gives up against Alabama, I’ll be absolutely shocked. If it’s like the rest of the Tide’s games this year, I’ll be shocked. Gus knows that this is the biggest game on the schedule, and he spends all year preparing for it. Will it happen for us? Dunno.
Likelihood of happening: 2.99%
There’s a lot at stake in November, and while things haven’t gone the way we might like so far this year, we can still hope for a perfect finish to the year. War Eagle!