ATLANTA—The memory of Auburn’s 40-17 throttling of Georgia three weeks ago was fresh on the minds of everyone watching and playing the SEC Championship. The sequel ended up playing out just a bit differently from the original.
The Bulldogs, led by true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, avenged both that humiliating defeat and decades’ worth of frustration to dominate Auburn, winning both the SEC Championship (the program’s first since 2005) and almost-assuredly clinching the school’s first-ever trip to the College Football Playoff.
Early on in the 28-7 win, it looked like Georgia would head back to Athens tail between its legs once again. Georgia spent most of the first half playing two opponents: Auburn and itself. On three major occasions, the Bulldogs killed themselves with penalties:
• A pass interference call on third-and-10 75 seconds into the game that kept Auburn’s opening drive alive. End result: touchdown Tigers.
• Offensive pass interference from the two-yard-line, turning a near-certain touchdown into a field goal.
• A facemask penalty that negated a Bulldog interception with just over three minutes remaining in the half; the defense forced Auburn into a punt four plays later.
You can’t prove a negative, but that’s arguably an 11-point swing in Auburn’s favor. That helped the Tigers obscure a half that started strong but turned frail. The Tigers’ opening drive — the one aided by that first big Bulldog penalty — was a model of rhythm, tempo, speed and precision. Stidham stayed calm as the world whirled around him, Johnson showed no ill effects from his shoulder injury suffered in the Iron Bowl, and the drive culminated with an absolutely gorgeous pinpoint touchdown across the middle from Stidham to Nate Craig-Myers. Five minutes in, Auburn up 7-0, and the beatdown of Nov. 11 didn’t look like a fluke.
And then … well, let’s let the drive results tell the story.
Auburn: Touchdown, Punt, Fumble, Punt, Punt
Georgia: Punt, Punt, Touchdown, Field Goal
After that opening Auburn drive in which the Bulldogs looked humiliated and hung over, facing the most critical moment in coach Kirby Smart’s young tenure at the helm of Georgia, the team rallied. Fromm, the theoretical “caretaker quarterback,” completed nine straight passes, while the hammer-and-other-hammer combo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb stomped through the Auburn line. The prettiest play of the first half came when Fromm deked a handoff to Chubb and the entire Auburn defense bit like they were gnawing a cheap steak, leaving Isaac Nauta wide open in the end zone:
Halftime arrived, and with it the always-entertaining Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway. After the whole chest-passes-are-the-devil debate skittered around social media, the teams returned to the field for the second half, and immediately traded punts.
Auburn then drove deep into Georgia territory, getting as far as the 14-yard-line, aided to a huge degree by a collapsing third-and-six that Stidham turned into a 29-yard completion. But kicker Daniel Carlson’s field goal attempt was blocked by the spectacularly named DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle. Georgia wasn’t able to capitalize on the block, and the War of Punts continued.
Georgia’s first score of the second half came on a drive that ought to throw a bit of fear into the rest of the SEC for the next couple years, as Fromm seemed to transform over the course of the game from Running Back Delivery System to pinpoint pocket passer. Aided by a 31-yard strike to Terry Godwin and a 20-yard Chubb run, the Bulldogs stalled just inside the red zone, and Blankenship’s second field goal of the game put Georgia up 16-10 just before the third quarter ended.
Stidham spent much of the second half scrambling, with considerable success, but a key moment in the game came on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter punched the ball right out of Johnson’s arms. Georgia recovered on the Auburn 39, and four plays later, Fromm found Godwin for both a touchdown and the ensuing two-point conversion.
Down 21-7, Auburn’s last realistic chance at a rally fizzled with a weak three-and-out. Georgia took over with 13 minutes standing between it and a playoff berth, and proceeded to unleash freshman D’Andre Swift for a 64-yard, conference-and-playoff-berth-clinching touchdown.
The season isn’t a failure for Auburn; any year you beat Alabama, and likely deny the Tide a spot in the playoff, is a good year. Still, after all the momentum the Tigers built up over the last month, to sputter just short of the finish line has to be tough for the Tigers to take.
Georgia, on the other hand, now almost certainly moves on to the playoff, its precise spot dependent on the outcome of the ACC Championship and the whims of the playoff committee. It’ll be riding the momentum of an exhilarating win, plus its customarily lethal ground game and a surprisingly competent air attack. All of a sudden, the Georgia Bulldogs might just be in line for their first championship since 1980.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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