It’s not as if Georgia and Auburn are mystery guests. They’ve both won SEC titles. They’ve both won national championships, the latter more recently than the former. Theirs is, as we know, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. That said …
There’s a pinch of unreality about this SEC Championship game, and not because these teams don’t deserve to be here. (They do.) It’s just that the coach who’s almost always here on the first Saturday in December is sitting in Tuscaloosa trying to triangulate his way into the College Football Playoff.
Auburn folks spend every day of every year thinking about Alabama. Georgia folks have devoted much time over the past decade – ever since the Blackout blowout of Sept. 27, 2008 – trying to figure a way to out-Saban Nick Saban. They came within five yards and a deflected pass of doing it in the semi-demolished Georgia Dome in 2012. They fired Mark Richt and replaced him with Saban’s aide-de-camp two winters ago. Georgia’s presence this weekend is testimony to how well the Kirby Smart’s Bama Graft has taken.
From September on, we on this side of the state line thought of little but Georgia versus Alabama, pupil versus master. Auburn, which served Smart his first loss of Year 2, rendered the anticipated reunion a rematch instead. Thus is Alabama missing from the SEC title tilt for only the third time since 2007 and the first time since 2013. Thus do we have Bulldogs-Tigers, Take 2. Winner makes the playoff. Loser (if the loser is Auburn) might lose its coach. More about that in a bit.
Smart has been here – “here” meaning the SEC Championship game, not the just-opened MBS – five times already. (Bama was 4-1 in those games, losing to Florida and Tim Tebow in 2008.) “The biggest stage in college football,” Smart called it Friday, just before taking his Bulldogs out for their first look at the famous halo board.
“I certainly think it helps,” he said of having walked this stage before. “Experience is invaluable, being able to control the emotions. You can’t lose composure.”
Bulldogs composure was lost, at least after the game’s first drive, at Jordan-Hare Stadium three Saturdays ago. Georgia scored a touchdown on its first possession. Its second touchdown reduced Auburn’s lead from 30 points to 23 with 2:19 to play. Then No. 1 in the CFP rankings, the Bulldogs fell with a thud. Nobody, however, counted them out. They already had clinched the SEC East; they knew they’d be in this game. Auburn still needed to beat Alabama, which would supplant Georgia as No. 1, to get here.
Said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn to Smart at game’s end: “We’ll see you in Atlanta.”
Smart: “I’ll tell Nick you said that.”
Malzahn: “You do that.”
Owing to its powerful victories over Georgia and Bama, Malzahn’s team arrives as a slight favorite. That status carries an asterisk. Kerryon Johnson, the running back who personally outgained Georgia by three yards on Nov. 11, was hurt in the Iron Bowl and has, according to Malzahn, “been limited” but “did do a few things” this week. Some Auburn media folks expect Johnson to play; others are more doubtful.
Said Malzahn: “I’ll be curious to see how he moves around in pregame. I’ll be watching, just like you.”
Losing Johnson would be more damaging than Georgia losing Nick Chubb – because Georgia also has Sony Michel. (Auburn has Kamryn Pettway, who’s also hurt.) Having to work without Johnson, whom Malzahn called “one of the best players in all of college football,” would be a blow from which his renowned offense mightn’t recover. Auburn would still have a chance, but nowhere near as good a one.
There’s also the issue of Malzahn himself. Arkansas wants to hire him as Bret Bielema’s replacement. (Malzahn made his reputation as a high school coach in Springdale, Ark.) It has been reported that his representation has presented Auburn with the outline of a contract that would keep him in place. Asked about this Friday, Malzahn said: “I’m focused on this game. This is the SEC championship, and I’m the head coach at Auburn.”
And there you have it: The team that unhorsed mighty Alabama facing the team that has modeled itself after Alabama. Winner to the playoff, loser surely relegated to a New Year’s Six game. If you’re a Georgia fan, you don’t care who the Bulldogs beat if it enables them to play for a national title for the first time since Jan. 1, 1983. (They lost to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.) If you’re a neutral, a second game against Auburn pales a bit when we imagine how rich Saban/Bama versus Smart/UGA would have been.
Be advised that Smart isn’t one who ponders what-ifs. Asked, on a personal level, for his reaction when Auburn beat Alabama, he said: “My immediate (thought) was how were we going to play better against Auburn.”
Then, giving a nod to Friday’s crowded news conference and how many Kirby/Nick questions he’d have fielded had the opponent been different: “I can only imagine what it would be today if we were sitting there and we would be playing them.”
Ah, well, Maybe next December. Maybe defending national champ Georgia will face Saban’s Tide for the 2018 SEC title and we’ll have our Kirby/Nick collision. And maybe Malzahn will be watching from his new home in Fayetteville, Ark.