AUBURN, Ala. — The College Football Playoff Selection committee’s top-ranked team went to the Loveliest Village on the Plains and left with a resounding defeat. Here are three thoughts about what comes next after Auburn’s 40-17 win against Georgia.
1. The key concern for Auburn this season was never whether the Tigers were talented enough. Athlete for athlete, they can match up with anyone. The question was whether the coaching staff could be creative enough to help that talented roster win when it faced an equally athletic team. Saturday, Auburn looked like a different team than the one that gagged away a 20-point lead at LSU less than a month ago. That team had a predictable offense that put quarterback Jarrett Stidham into impossible predicaments on third-and-long in the second half. The Tigers who beat Georgia mixed the run and the pass on early downs and stayed ahead of the sticks most of the time.
Auburn also made Georgia pay dearly for its mistakes. In the second quarter, Georgia linebacker D’Andre Walker was called for leaping over a blocker while Auburn punted. That 15-yard penalty allowed Auburn to keep possession and led to a 42-yard touchdown pass from Stidham to Darius Slayton.
After an overturned catch ruling forced Auburn to punt on its first possession of the second half, Georgia’s Mecole Hardman muffed the return. Auburn recovered on the Georgia 23-yard line and scored four plays later on a Stidham run. Later in the third, Georgia back Sony Michel was flagged for a personal foul after the Bulldogs punted, giving the Tigers the ball on the Georgia 34-yard line. Two plays later. Ryan Davis caught a short Stidham pass and streaked through the Bulldogs’ defense for a 32-yard touchdown that put Auburn up 30-7.
2. Georgia almost certainly will fall out of the No. 1 spot when the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its next rankings on Tuesday, but the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain very much alive. Georgia would be very likely to make the playoff if it beats Kentucky and Georgia Tech to close the regular season and then beats Alabama or Auburn in the SEC title game.
But to beat either the Crimson Tide or the Tigers, the Bulldogs will have to get more out of the passing game. Georgia has been able to beat most opponents with a steady diet of Nick Chubb and Michel. Auburn’s front seven manhandled Georgia’s offensive line, though. The Tigers dared freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to try to win the game with his arm. In the first half, it seemed Georgia coaches were afraid to let Fromm try—even though Fromm had completed all three of his pass attempts for 56 yards while leading the Bulldogs to a touchdown on the game’s opening drive. For the rest of the half, Fromm only attempted five passes and completed only one. One of those incompletions would have been a touchdown had Fromm not underthrown a wide-open Riley Ridley and a long gain had Ridley not dropped the ball. Georgia coaches opened up the offense in the third quarter, but only after the Bulldogs had fallen far behind. It really didn’t matter what Georgia coaches called, though. Behind a pass rush led by junior Jeff Holland, Auburn held the Bulldogs to 3.77 yards a play.
While Georgia’s loss might not necessarily keep the Bulldogs from making the playoff, it should eliminate the possibility of two SEC teams making the final four. Had Georgia and Alabama met in the SEC title game as undefeated teams, it’s possible Georgia could have lost and still been considered for the playoff by virtue of its win at Notre Dame. Now, Georgia would be out with a loss to Alabama or Auburn in the SEC title game. An Alabama loss to Georgia in the title game might open the possibility the 12-1 Crimson Tide still making the playoff, but a loss to a one-loss opponent would hurt more than a loss to an undefeated team.
3. But what about Auburn’s playoff chances? No two-loss team has made the playoff since its inception in 2014, but the Tigers could make a strong case to be the first. Auburn has losses at Clemson and at LSU. Clemson is a potential College Football Playoff team. LSU is not, but those Tigers could finish 9-3. To get into contention for the playoff, Auburn would have to beat Louisiana-Monroe next week and then beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl in Auburn on Nov. 25.
That’s a huge ask considering the Tigers haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since the Kick Six game in 2013 and have lost their last three to Alabama by an average of 15 points. If Auburn gets past Alabama, it would have to beat Georgia again in the SEC title game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But if the Tigers are as dynamic on offense and as dominant on defense as they were Saturday, they can pull off this trifecta.