AUBURN, Ala. — In SEC rivalries, no slight goes unremembered. Few of those slights go unpunished.
Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium featured one such comeuppance 10 years in the making. Auburn led 40–10 when Tigers coach Gus Malzahn challenged the spot on a fourth-down play that appeared to result in a Georgia first down. Challenging a fourth-down spot up 30 with 3:38 remaining is salty enough, but that only bought the time for the Tigers’ next move(s).
The massive speakers of a video board visible from space roared to life…
Then came a few familiar plonks on a steel drum. Was Auburn doing this?
Yes. Auburn was doing this.
To understand why Auburn players dancing to a 10-year-old song had so much meaning besides the obvious—they were celebrating whipping the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings—requires a history lesson. In 2007, Georgia commemorated the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry by doing three things:
1. They wore black jerseys.
2. They crushed Auburn.
3. They danced to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” during a late timeout.
The Bulldogs even got Verne Lundquist to shake what his mama gave him. That indignity would not stand, and the Tigers finally took their revenge at the most appropriate time. Not long after the callback to “Crank That”, Maino’s “All The Above” blasted across the Loveliest Village on the Plains. This was another bit of nostalgia. That song soundtracked the dance parties that erupted on the sidelines between the third and fourth quarters when Auburn’s 2010 national title team played at home.
The message was clear, and given what had just transpired in the previous three hours, it didn’t feel unrealistic. Playing the way they did Saturday, the Tigers absolutely can compete for a national title. But first they have to answer an important question: Was Saturday evidence of an evolved team that just needed time to reach its peak, or was it simply a perfect day when everything clicked?
We’ll find out on Nov. 25 when Alabama visits Jordan-Hare Stadium. The winner of the Iron Bowl will play Georgia for the SEC title and a place in the College Football Playoff. In the days after Auburn took its second loss at LSU on Oct. 14, that seemed impossible. Now? There isn’t much doubt that if the Tigers can go 3–0 between now and Dec. 2, they’ll be the first two-loss team to make the playoff. And if they pull that off, they’d likely enter as the team no one wants to play.
So which team will Auburn be going forward? The Tigers offered hints by their play and by their postgame comments that they had to grow into the team that pounded Georgia and that the performance is repeatable. “We knew we were a good team,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We knew we had some growing pains early. Obviously, this team is light years away from the one in Week 2 and in the second half against LSU. … The top teams in the country, this time of year, they find a way to get better.”
So how did Auburn get better? The obvious answer is dominant play on both lines of scrimmage. Auburn has a loaded defensive line, and Jeff Holland, Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell shut down Georgia’s running game—allowing only 1.4 yards a carry against a team that entered Saturday averaging 5.8 yards a carry. Holland, who had five tackles and a sack, also was named “Crank That” dance-off champ by his teammates for his mastery of a craze that peaked when he was 11 years old. “I was young, but I still remember. I’m a dancer, you know. I can do a lot more than football.” Meanwhile, Auburn’s offensive line routinely reset the line of scrimmage late in the game. At times, it appeared tailback Kerryon Johnson had only gained a yard or two because he went down shortly after hitting the line. But those gains actually went for five or six yards because Auburn’s line had shoved Georgia’s line back. “You can just feel when someone is wearing down,” Tigers guard Braden Smith said. “You’ve just got to feast upon that.”
In the LSU loss, Auburn failed to adjust in the second half after LSU’s defense dropped a safety into the box to stop Johnson in the Wildcat. Against Georgia, Auburn tweaked its offense to make it less predictable. The Tigers opened their first four possessions with passes on first down and then sprinkled in short and intermediate passes throughout. LSU loaded the box on first down and then settled back when Auburn got into bad down-and-distance situations. Georgia couldn’t do that because Auburn broke tendency so often. It also helped that the Tigers didn’t allow themselves to get behind the sticks. They only faced five third downs in Saturday’s second half, and the average distance needed was 3.4 yards. Against LSU, Auburn faced nine second-half third downs with an average distance of 7.6 yards.
Meanwhile, Malzahn believes first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and first-year starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham have learned how to work together better than they did earlier in the season. The 11-sack disaster against Clemson on Sept. 9 was their second game together. The LSU game was their seventh. Plus, Malzahn pointed out Saturday, Stidham didn’t exactly have extensive experience as a starter as a Baylor freshman in 2015. “You’ve got to keep in mind that Jarrett played four games before he got here,” Malzahn said. “Everybody was talking about his experience.”
It wasn’t empty talk that Malzahn could be in trouble if he lost to Georgia and Alabama. With massive tumult in Auburn’s athletic department, only a championship contender could keep him secure. He has one of those now. And even though this team has one more loss at this point, its momentum feels similar to the 2013 Auburn team that won the SEC and played for a national title. But that team needed a miracle to beat Georgia and an even bigger miracle to beat Alabama. This team needed no miracles to beat Georgia. Whether Auburn can deliver a similar performance in the Iron Bowl remains to be seen.
Malzahn and company know the challenge that lies ahead. They also know what they did Saturday should not be taken lightly. Malzahn described the performance perfectly as he left the field.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who may see the Tigers again Dec. 2 if Auburn can keep playing this way, couldn’t disagree. “I’ll be honest with you,” Smart said, “I think when you perform the way they did on the field, you earn the right to say really whatever you want.”