Auburn has huge opportunity to play spoiler against Georgia, Alabama


Auburn, Ala.—This is certainly not where the Auburn football team wanted to be as the third Saturday in November approaches.

Auburn (7-2, 4-2 SEC), with two difficult road losses to No. 11 Florida (24-13) and No. 1 LSU (23-20), is, for all intents and purposes, out of the race for the SEC’s Western Division.

So what is Auburn REALLY playing for in its last three games with Georgia, Samford, and Alabama?

The obvious answer is to get to 10-2 and earn a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl. While the folks at Auburn won’t say it out loud, here is what’s really on the line when Auburn plays No. 4 Georgia here on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS).

Auburn can’t win the national championship, but the Tigers can play the ultimate spoiler and ruin the hopes of both Georgia and Alabama.

Here’s how:

If Georgia beats Auburn it will clinch a spot in the SEC championship game on Dec. 7 in Atlanta, most certainly against No. 1 LSU. If Georgia loses to Auburn, it can still clinch a spot in Atlanta by beating Texas A&M in Athens on Nov. 23. Could the Bulldogs still get in the playoffs if they upset LSU and finish 11-2? Maybe. Maybe not.

No. 5 Alabama, which lost to LSU 46-41 on Saturday, still hopes to be taken by the committee if it gets to 11-1. By beating Alabama on Nov. 30, Auburn would end Alabama’s national championship hopes before the month of December arrives.

More simply put: The only thing sweeter for an Auburn fan than competing for a national championship is making sure that Georgia and Alabama do not.

Remember that just two short years ago, Auburn beat Georgia and Alabama in Jordan-Hare when both teams were ranked No. 1. The football fates were not kind to Auburn as the Tigers lost a rematch with Georgia in the SEC championship game (running back Kerryon Johnson was badly banged up). Georgia got into the playoffs and so did Alabama (11-1). Auburn watched their two biggest rivals play for the national championship in Atlanta with Alabama winning in overtime. Auburn sat at home seething in the knowledge that it had beaten both teams within a three-week span.

So now Auburn gets another shot to play spoiler as Georgia and Auburn come to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“We have a lot to play for here. That’s what we’re worried about,” said Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn, whose team is 39-9 at home since he became head coach. “We’ve got some really good things ahead of us. Maybe it could work out like it did two years ago.”

In 2017 Georgia was dominated 40-17 on November 11. Alabama replaced the Bulldogs at No. 1 and were beaten here 26-14 two weeks later. I covered both games and the crowd was definitely a factor.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” said Malzahn. “It feels different around here. These are the games that people remember and our players know that.”

And just so you’ll know, this game is not going to be anything like what you saw at Bryant-Denny Stadium when LSU beat Alabama 46-41. This is going to be an old-fashioned, in the trenches, slobber knocker of a game where maybe only one team scores 20 points.

These are two of the very best defenses in the country. Just a couple of stats to point it out:

**--Georgia, which held Florida to 1.1 yards per carry in a 24-17 win in Jacksonville, is the only Power Five team that has yet to give up a touchdown rushing this season. Only two teams in SEC history (Tennessee in 1939, Ole Miss in 1963) have gone an entire season without giving up a rushing touchdown. Georgia is No. 10 nationally in scoring defense, giving up only 10.10 points per game.

**--There is no doubt that Auburn has the best defensive front in college football, led by a couple of war daddies in Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown. Auburn is one of six teams that has not allowed 24 or more points in a game this season.

You remember that LSU offense that is hanging 40-plus points on everybody? Well, Auburn’s defense held LSU to 23 points despite the fact that they were on the field for an unbelievable 88 plays.

With Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator, Auburn has allowed just 22.71 points per game against ranked teams.

“They’ve got a really good defense but we have a really good defense, too,” said Malzahn.

If there is a decided edge for Georgia it is at quarterback where junior Jake Fromm is 31-6 as a starter.

“It all starts with Jake Fromm,” said Malzahn. “He’s one of the best players at any position in college football. He’s a tough guy and we have to find a way to make him uncomfortable.”

Bo Nix, Auburn’s true freshman quarterback, has had some good moments but at times, specifically on the road at Florida and LSU, he has struggled on the big stage. The stage doesn’t get much bigger that it will be in November. He’s heard the critics.

“You can’t really hide from it completely,” said Nix. “It comes with the territory. If you play better you won’t give them anything to talk about.

Nix is coming off one of his better performances of the season when he completed 30 of 44 passes for 340 yards against Ole Miss.

The hope here is that in his 10th start and with the energy and confidence that comes from playing at home, Nix is ready to take the next step in his maturation as a quarterback. And that next step is easily defined.

“It think it’s just confidence,” Nix said. “I’ve played against Florida, LSU, and Oregon. We just want to finish strong. We still have a lot left in front of us.”


Tony Barnhart