Everything seemed to be trending toward the ultimate showdown for Auburn. The Tigers, losers in two of their first three games, had reeled off six straight wins to rise to No. 9 in the rankings, thrusting them into the thick of the College Football Playoff race. All they had to do was beat Georgia on the road and skate past Alabama A&M next week to set up a duel for the ages against Alabama with the SEC West title on the line.
So much for that. Georgia upended Auburn’s plans by stunning the Tigers 13–7 in Sanford Stadium on Saturday. The Bulldogs’ victory clinches the SEC West for Alabama. Here are three thoughts on Georgia’s win:
1. With no Kamryn Pettway and a seemingly injured Sean White, Auburn’s offense regressed
The Tigers scored just 29 points in their defeats to Clemson and Texas A&M early in the season before head coach Gus Malzahn turned over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. The results were striking as Sean White developed into an effective if not prolific passer and Pettway broke out as the SEC’s top rusher.
With Pettway out with a leg injury and White’s efficacy seemingly limited by injury Saturday, Auburn’s offense returned to its early-season form. The Tigers gained just 32 yards after halftime, when their only drives that didn’t go three-and-out ended on an interception and a turnover on downs.
White, who sat out the first half of last week’s matchup with Vanderbilt before returning to spark a sluggish attack, seemed to clearly suffer from his reported injury to his throwing shoulder. He completed just 6 of 20 passes for 27 yards, an appalling 1.4 yards per attempt, and his third-quarter interception gave Georgia its only touchdown of the game as Maurice Smith returned the pick for a 34-yard touchdown.
With White completely ineffective and Pettway out, Georgia’s defense could key in on running back Kerryon Johnson. After he scored Auburn’s only points of the game, Johnson found little room to run. He carried the ball seven times for 25 yards in crowded boxes in the second half as the Tigers fell into a predictable pattern of runs for limited gains, leading to third-and-long passes that fell incomplete.
2. Georgia’s offense wasn’t much better, but it came up clutch
The offensive stats on Georgia’s side of the box score aren't much better than Auburn’s. The Bulldogs’ offense never reached the end zone, and their ground game gained just 3.1 yards per carry.
However, as Auburn’s offense sputtered, Georgia capitalized by wearing down a Tigers defense that could never get much time off the field. Finally, after seven drives ended in either an interception or a punt, the Bulldogs broke through. Nick Chubb found some running room and true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason completed some clutch passes, including two third-down completions to move the chains, to set up kicker Rodrigo Blankenship for a 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
With the Tigers’ offensive mishaps, that one effective drive would have been enough, but Georgia helped seal the deal with a 14-play, 65-yard drive ending in another field goal with 2:25 left that used up 6:48 of clock in the fourth quarter.
Eason finished the game 20 of 31 for 208 yards, including some timely completions to true freshman tight end Isaac Nauta. More importantly, he avoided any turnovers that could have set up Auburn with a short field on which even its anemic offense could have capitalized.
3. The Iron Bowl just got much less interesting
Had Auburn won Saturday, the Tigers would have met Alabama with the SEC West title on the line and the winner likely controlling its playoff destiny. Now all that’s left for the Tigers to play for is pride.
With its third loss of the season, Auburn is certainly out of the playoff race. And with every SEC West team other than Alabama sporting at least two losses in conference play, the Crimson Tide have already locked up the division.
Now, even if Auburn can stun Alabama in two weeks, it can’t play spoiler for the Tide’s postseason hopes as a 12–1 SEC champion Alabama would still make the playoff. Essentially, all the Tide have to do to earn a third straight trip to the national semifinals is beat the SEC East champion in Atlanta. Given the clear talent discrepancy between Alabama and that division, it’s safe to at least pencil Nick Saban’s squad into the playoff field.