Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Hang this loss on Auburn's defense

AUBURN, Ala. --

This had to happen eventually.

When a defense can seldom muster a pass rush and its secondary leaves wide open gaps down field, it's bound to catch up sooner or later.

It almost caught up to Auburn the previous two weeks. And Saturday against Texas A&M, it finally did. Thus, the Tigers' stunning 41-38 loss to Texas A&M ruined their national championship hopes.

"It hurts. It hurts our team," said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. "We have goals and dreams, and we did not get it done tonight. It is unfortunate, but we did not get it done. But you have to be a big boy. You have to man up. You have to be better in the future."

The Auburn Tigers could only put just so much pressure on their offense.

Sure, two huge miscues by the offense -- a fumble and a botched snap -- prevented the Tigers from pulling off another heroic finish. And a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown on the last play of the first half was costly. And the defense played worlds better in the second half.

But the bottom line is this: The Tigers gave up 41 points, including 35 in the first half. Championship caliber teams don't do that.

Auburn's defense had exceeded expectations through the first five games. The most points they gave up was 21 to Arkansas in the season opener. In fact, the defense saved them on a Thursday night at Kansas State (as did several uncharacteristic mistakes by the Wildcats).

But they really didn't face a very good offensive team in that stretch. LSU's offense has been erratic. San Jose State and Louisiana Tech are simply not reliable measures for an SEC team, especially one with national championship aspirations.

The cracks in the dam started to show a month ago in a 38-23 loss to Mississippi State. Yes, turnovers contributed to the Tigers' demise that day in Starkville. But missed tackles and missed assignments contributed just as much.

That was followed by a narrow escape at home against South Carolina. The Tigers won 42-35, but only because the Gamecocks' defense is even worse and because Steve Spurrier ran out of time. And Spurrier should have had one more shot at the end zone had the officials noticed that Auburn had two players with the same jersey number -- Montravius Adams and D'haquille Williams each wearing No. 1 -- which should have been a 5-yard penalty and one last play.

That was followed by the great escape in Oxford, when Ole Miss fumbled twice in the closing minutes when the Rebels certainly would have scored. The second one, of course, had heartbreaking consequences as Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell suffered that gruesome broken ankle and fumbled just before crossing the goal line.

The college football playoff selection committee doesn't look at style points. They look at final scores and strength of schedule and other such tangible matters. So the Tigers were deemed the third-best team in college football, and the best among those without perfect records.

But their weakness were exposed by a fairly middling Texas A&M team, one that plummeted from playoff talk to oblivion with losses to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama by a combined score of 142-51. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin grew so frustrated that he benched his freshman starting quarterback, Kenny Hill, for Kyle Allen, another freshman. That move didn't inspire much confidence in College Station after the Aggies struggled to beat Louisiana-Monroe 21-16.

So nobody saw this coming. Nobody, that is, outside the eternally confident Sumlin.

Even after the Aggies struck for two quick touchdowns in the game's first two minutes and seven seconds, the Tigers appeared to take control. A pair of touchdowns by Cameron Artis-Payne tied it, and no doubt most people watching figured that Auburn had survived the Aggies' hardest punch.

But the defense surrendered two more touchdowns in the second quarter. Even with that, the Tigers could have cut the halftime margin to eight points on a Daniel Carlson field goal. Instead, Myles Garrett broke through the line and blocked the kick. Deshazor Everett scooped it up and raced 65 yards for the touchdown.

Just like that, instead of it being 28-20 it was 35-17, and it was evident the Tigers indeed were in deep trouble.

So where to from here? A spot in the playoffs is pretty much gone. It would take a series of events too long and improbable to ponder now.

Even so, a strong finish would still turn the season into a success. Road wins over Georgia and Alabama should be viewed as more than consolation prizes. That, plus a win over Samford, would give the Tigers 10 wins for the regular season. A bowl victory would certainly reward them with a top-10 finish in Malzahn's second season with a bright future. If you're an Auburn fan, certainly you would have taken that two years ago.

"Like I said before, we have a lot of champions," Malzahn said. "We just have to improve. It is not going to affect us in a negative way the rest of the year, put it that way."

Much of that depends on the Tigers' defense. Georgia's offense, at its best, is just as explosive as Texas A&M's. The Dogs will have Todd Gurley back from suspension. Alabama's offense has been powerful at home.If Auburn's defense doesn't improve, we could see more of what we have seen the last four weeks.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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