Here it was. Georgia’s first chance, realistically speaking, to lose since Sept. 9. Its opportunity to show a curious nation that it was No. 1 on merit. Georgia’s moment to prove that it’s no longer the Georgia that would arrive at every big game and trip over its shoelaces.
Here it was. And there Georgia went. Splat city.
Everything the Bulldogs had done to make it to the top of the College Football Playoff rankings, they failed to do here Saturday. They weren’t just beaten – they were overwhelmed. Auburn spotted the visitors seven points and won by 23. The final score was 40-17 It wasn’t that close.
But here’s the thing. There’s a chance these two could meet again on Dec. 2. (Auburn would have to beat Alabama, but the Tigers just walloped a team ranked ahead of Alabama.) This loss removes the chance of Georgia making the playoff as a non-SEC champ. But a one-loss SEC champ, even one lugging a 23-point loss, would have a case.
There’s your sliver of a silver lining: Even if the Bulldogs fall from the top four in the newest CFP rankings – the guess is that they’ll be No. 4 or No. 5 – they can still play for a national championship. They just can’t play like this.
Full credit to Auburn. The Tigers owned the cold day-into-night. They did what they wanted on offense, on defense, every which way. “We dominated both lines of scrimmage,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
Georgia took the opening kickoff and drove 70 snappy yards to a 7-0 lead 3:39 into the game. When next it scored a touchdown, 2:19 remained and Auburn’s lead was reduced from 30 points to 23.
With 6:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, the team with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift had rushed for 23 yards. Auburn’s defensive front shoved the Bulldogs backward, rendering play-action passes null and void and making Jake Fromm look, for the first time as a collegian, like a rookie. The telling moment came late in the first half, when Georgia, having just made its first first down since those first 3 ½ minutes, tried a flea-flicker. Chubb took a handoff and shoveled it back to Fromm, who was sacked by many Tigers.
The score was only 16-7, but in that instant you could see desperation in a team that had gone 441 minutes and 28 seconds without trailing – from Sept. 9 at Notre Dame until Auburn nosed ahead three minutes into the second quarter. The Tigers were stopping Georgia. The Bulldogs weren’t stopping anything
It was still 16-7 at the half, Kirby Smart having done a strange thing after Mecole Hardman returned a punt to the Auburn 26. Twenty-two seconds remained. Smart had spent his timeouts on defense, as he should have. But Georgia handed the ball to Chubb rather than, you know, try to throw it in the end zone. The run was stuffed. Rodrigo Blankenship missed the field goal. Smart had looked a gift three points in the mouth, banking nothing.
The Bulldogs’ chances, already crumbling, fell to pieces in the span of two plays. Auburn’s apparent third-down conversion on its first possession of the second half was reversed by replay. Georgia would get the ball with a chance to pull within one score. Except it didn’t get the ball. Hardman muffed the punt. Auburn recovered. Four runs later, quarterback Jarrett Stidham ducked around right end to score. It was 23-7. It would get worse.
Had Georgia lost honorably, the prospects of a rematch in climate-controlled Mercedes-Benz Stadium might seem inviting. This was a dishonorable loss. Two-loss Auburn shouldn’t have beaten the nation’s No. 1 team like this. (”We beat a really good team soundly,” said Malzahn, who’s not a bragger.) More to the point, the Bulldogs shouldn’t have allowed to happen.
They teed up Auburn’s first touchdown with a 15-yard penalty on a punt and extended it with a 15-yard penalty on a punt. In the second half, Michel was flagged for a personal foul in punt coverage. Three plays later, it was 30-7.
This was Georgia doing the sort of stuff it hadn’t done over its first nine games. (”Out of character,” Smart called it.) His mighty defense was left in a lurch. Auburn finished with 488 yards. Georgia, mustered only 230, a number inflated by a late touchdown drive. Twice in the third quarter, Smart declined to go for it on fourth down with his team trailing by 23 and then 20. Must have figured there was no use.
Given a non-performance like this, we have to ask: Was this the real Georgia, a good team propped up by an awful SEC East? Apart from Notre Dame and maybe Mississippi State, had the Bulldogs played anybody? (Answer: no.) Sure, they looked great running it up against Florida and Tennessee, but those programs are no longer yardsticks. Was the up-from-oblivion being written by Smart in Year 2 more a function of scheduling than anything else?
The belief here, even after bearing witness to this atrocity, was that Smart’s Bulldogs remain a good team, albeit one that just had as bad a day as any good team is apt to have. This is college football. It can happen. Oklahoma lost to Iowa State. Ohio State lost to Iowa. Clemson lost to Syracuse.
As great as the temptation is to say, “All is lost,” it isn’t. Georgia will still play for the SEC title. Should it win in Atlanta, it will have a victory to offset this loss and a conference title to boot. But I’ll say this: If I’m the Bulldogs, I’m rooting for Alabama in the Iron Bowl. I never want to see Auburn again.