In the SEC, the West continues to be better than the East by leaps and bounds. This Georgia team was supposed to be different, though.
But it didn’t look like it Saturday on The Plains, as Auburn dominated the No. 1 program in the College Football Playoff rankings 40-17. The disparity between the two divisions, even at the top, remains too big to ignore.
Even with two defeats — at defending national champion Clemson in Week 2, at division rival LSU in Week 7 — the Tigers are probably the only two-loss team in America that can still make it to the Final Four. They have Alabama at home in the season finale, and if they pull off another upset, they’ll face UGA again in the conference championship game.
While the Dawgs are due for a fall in the polls, coach Kirby Smart and Co. aren’t eliminated yet and had some margin for error.
Auburn played well, don’t get me wrong, but this one was more about Georgia making mistakes than the Tigers capitalizing off them. Despite the lopsided final score, the Bulldogs had too many unforced errors to count at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
UGA let not one but two touchdowns slip through its fingers. Quarterback Jake Fromm failed to hit receiver Riley Ridley on a deep post — it would’ve been an easy score — after his defender fell down in coverage. Later on a flea flicker, Fromm had another streaking wideout all alone but got sacked before he could pull the trigger.
Special teams were a disaster for the Dawgs, too. Two egregious errors led to momentum-shifting TDs for Auburn.
On the first, a leaping penalty gave the ball back to the Tigers after Georgia had forced a punt. Two plays later, Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham delivered a strike to receiver Darius Slayton for a 42-yard score with four minutes left before halftime.
On the second, Bulldogs return man Mecole Hardman — he’d been effective with a 47-yard kick return and a 30-yard punt return earlier on the afternoon — fumbled a punt deep in his own territory. Stidham again took advantage of the freebie, scoring from the 7-yard line on a read-option keeper to make it 23-7 three minutes after intermission.
Following an opening-series touchdown from UGA, the Tigers were the better ballclub on offense, defense and special teams.
The league didn’t have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate coming into Week 11, but Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson might be making a late push. He ran for 167 yards and caught 2 passes for another 66, including a 55-yarder for a TD.
The Dawgs’ vaunted rushing attack, on the other hand, was a complete non-factor. Tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel had just 48 yards on 20 carries — Chubb did manage to find his way into the end zone — and never broke a run longer than 7 yards. They came to town averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the season but were held to 1.4 by Auburn.
Georgia’s defense had been mentioned alongside Alabama’s in 2017, and rightfully so. The Tigers deserve to be in that conversation now.
Fromm (above) has been sensational since taking over as the starter in Week 1, especially for a true freshman, but he hadn’t been forced to direct a comeback with his arm in the previous nine contests. Auburn didn’t give him much breathing room, either.
He was only 13-of-28 through the air for 184 yards with a garbage-time score, and at no point did he appear to be particularly comfortable. Keep in mind that the Tigers didn’t have any takeaways on D — no fumbles, no interceptions — but still limited a vastly improved Bulldogs offense to 230 yards, 13 first downs and 26:54 of possession.
Meanwhile, Auburn ran for 237 yards while averaging 5.2 yards per carry and threw for 251 while averaging an even 10 per attempt.
Based on what happens in front of them, the Tigers will likely be on the cusp of the Top 5 in the next installment of the CFP rankings Tuesday. No. 9 Washington has already been upset. No. 5 Oklahoma plays No. 6 TCU in prime time. No. 3 Notre Dame faces No. 7 Miami, as well.
Simply speaking, Auburn has a chance to put together arguably the best résumé of any club in America if it can run the table the rest of the way. Assuming the Crimson Tide handle Mississippi State later — a relatively safe assumption — then they’ll be the new No. 1. The Tigers have a shot to take down the top-ranked team in the country twice in three weeks.
Even if UGA tumbles after laying this egg, the East has already been decided. The Dawgs are going to Atlanta one way or another.
If we do happen to see a rematch between these two at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, both of them will be in the Top 5 most likely. Therefore, the Tigers could beat three Top 5 teams in the span of four weeks, including No. 1 twice.
A run like that would be impossible for the playoff committee to ignore. While we’re yet to see a two-loss team be invited to the playoff, there hasn’t been a two-loss SEC champ since we switched to this format in 2014. The conference may not be as strong as it once was — the evidence is there, folks — but it’s still held in high regard nationwide.
Additionally, this wasn’t another fluky victory like Auburn had against the Dawgs and then ‘Bama in 2013 on its way to the last BCS Championship Game.
No, this was an incredible showing in all three phases by a Tigers team that feels for real. While we can’t ignore the two losses, neither one was embarrassing. Clemson won it all just last year. At LSU under the lights is no easy assignment.
Make no mistake, Georgia will get off the deck and pull itself together. The Bulldogs get Kentucky at home in seven days and then their annual rivalry with Georgia Tech — the Yellow Jackets won a year ago between the hedges — to close the regular season. It would be nothing short of a shock if they don’t finish 11-1 with playoff hopes still alive.
Rematches are rare in college football, but the Tigers are a step closer to pulling off what would be quite the hat trick.