AUBURN, Ala. – One could make the case that Georgia simply wasn’t ready for the big stage. Certainly there were signs of that with critical penalties, a muffed fair catch, a blown opportunity on a deep ball to a wide open Riley Ridley. In short, Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs displayed all of the frustrating traits against Auburn Saturday that got Mark Richt fired.
But Auburn’s 40-17 victory had more to do with what the Tigers did than the Bulldogs tripping over themselves.
The Tigers won because they dominated both lines of scrimmage.
They won because running back Kerryon Johnson proved he can carry a heavy load.
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They won because they were better prepared.
They won because their quarterback, Jarrett Stidham, outplayed Jake Fromm.
They won because the coach supposedly on the hot seat outcoached the latest rising star of the profession.
The Tigers didn’t win because Georgia overlooked them or started looking ahead to the SEC Championship Game, or because Auburn played with an attitude of nothing to lose. And they didn’t win simply because they were the better team Saturday.
The Tigers won because they’re the better team – period.
“They seized the moment,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We talked about this being a great opportunity for us, and our guys seized the moment. I’m really proud of our fans. Our fans were off the charts this game. They really helped us win the football game.”
They won because Kerryon Johnson proved to be the best running back on the field, quite a feat in a game that included Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Johnson had 34 touches – 32 carries and two catches – for 233 of Auburn’s 488 yards total offense.
“Kerryon Johnson – I’ve been saying it for a couple of weeks – is one of the best running backs in the country, if not THE best. He proved it tonight. He needs to be in the Heisman talk.”
That’s probably a stretch. His 167 rushing yards put him at 1,035 for the season. But his 32 carries did dispel any notion that Johnson is too slightly built to be a workhorse back.
Now the question is: Is it too little, too late?
Before the opening kickoff Saturday, Auburn tried everything it could think of to get an edge over Georgia. That included showing replays of key plays in big wins over the Bulldogs. None, of course, was any bigger than The Prayer at Jordan-Hare. In deference to Tray Matthews, the former Bulldog who now starts at safety for the Tigers, they conveniently edited out Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons colliding with each other and just showed Ricardo Lewis scoring what would turn out to be the winning touchdown.
If only the Tigers could edit out that second half at LSU. They would be right in the middle of the national championship picture.
“That was an extremely tough loss,” Malzahn said. “When you face adversity, you either get better from it or you fold your tent. Our team got better from it. We’ve been saying that. We’ve played really good football since then. Our guys have been urgent. We’ve been talking about championship urgency probably for the last three weeks, and they’re doing it. They carried it over to the field tonight against one of the better teams in America, and we beat ’em soundly.”
As it is, the Tigers will need something of a miracle to push their way into the top four. The Tigers went into the game ranked No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Washington, ranked No. 9, lost Friday night to Stanford. So that means at least four of the teams ranked ahead of Auburn lost – the Notre Dame-Miami and Oklahoma-TCU losers as well as Georgia.
The Tigers play Alabama in two weeks with a chance to win the SEC West and set up a rematch with Georgia. Of course, the point spread Saturday will have no bearing on a rematch in Atlanta. But say Auburn wins again. Given that scenario, no team in the country would have a resume anywhere close to
“Our dreams ,” Malzahn said, “are still in front of us.”