Tigers Finish 2nd in the SEC (Grading Auburn’s 28–7 Loss to Georgia and Thoughts on Keeping Gus at Auburn)
The Auburn freight train got knocked off the tracks
(John Bazemore, AP Photo.)
War Eagle, everybody. It’s time now for the Acid Reign Report on Auburn’s 28–7 loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. It has been a challenging year for the Tigers, but I’d have to judge it a fun one, overall. The pressure has been on, with “hot seat” being the prevailing topic of conversation the past couple of seasons. After an exceptionally horrific loss in Baton Rouge in October, Auburn went on a tear. An undefeated romp through Amen Corner in November ensued, and Auburn knocked off Number One-ranked Georgia AND Alabama in the span of two weeks. National title dreams danced before Tiger eyes. It all came crashing off the tracks in Atlanta in the SEC Title Game.
This will be a little bit of a departure from my usual post-game grading style. It was a disappointing loss, to be sure. But I can’t bring myself to ding various players for “points off here for…” stuff after the effort these young men showed this season. Instead, I’ll try to point out the positives from this game.
First off, kudos to Georgia. I opined prior to this game that Auburn won big in the trenches in the last matchup, and there was no reason that would not continue in this game. Georgia did not stand pat. The Georgia coaches changed strategy on both sides of the ball to minimize damage done by key Auburn standouts. Then, Auburn was missing its running game for this one, make no mistake. With a one-dimensional attack against a good Georgia defense, it was an uphill battle all the way.
Before this game, I gave a nod of approval to Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. He showed his stuff, in this game. Auburn has been killing offenses in the middle of the line. Georgia did a good job of getting the game out on the perimeter on the toss sweep. This is the most signature, basic play in the old pro-I offense, but sometimes it gets overlooked in the modern, fancy, read-based offensive era. Georgia has a pair of runners and a tight end and fullback that will all will likely be playing football on Sunday for years to come. Auburn slowed the toss down for maybe 3 quarters, but paid a price. Pressure on freshman Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm was less, and he made some good plays as a result.
On offense, Kerryon Johnson looked done for the season late in the Iron Bowl. Somehow, KJ started this game and got some carries. Honestly, I wish the team had let him heal. He was a shell of his midseason self, and it was a big risk to his future health to play him. KJ gave his all, as usual. In the bigger picture, Auburn’s running plan was a shell game, mainly trying to beat UGA with speed sweeps and QB keepers. It didn’t take Kirby and Georgia long to figure out that Auburn was no threat running up the middle.
With the running game stalled, Auburn looked to the passing game. The mesh/crossing pattern plays that beat Alabama were gone. Georgia had one or two linebackers dropping into those lanes, and there was nowhere to throw the ball into those spaces without risking a turnover. Georgia was also able to avoid being outnumbered on the quick screens to the sideline. The Bulldog plan was to keep those contained and make the tackle. Sure, Auburn completed probably a dozen of those passes, but most catches were put down on the ground with less than 5 yards gained. I was reminded of Tommy Tuberville’s defensive philosophy on those. “We’ll let you throw it 5 yards to the sideline. But we are going to make the tackle. You won’t be able to complete enough of those to move it down the field and score.”
Special teams have had issues this season for Auburn, and this week’s gaffe was a high snap and a subsequently blocked field goal attempt. I couldn’t find much fault, otherwise. Aiden Marshall is getting better and better each week punting the football. Daniel Carlson continues to be a weapon on kickoffs as well as extra points and field goals. We can’t blame a 21-point loss on one blocked field goal.
Meandering musings after the jump!
On the defensive line, Auburn had uncharacteristic struggles. To neutralize the best edge pass rusher in the SEC, Georgia ran right at Auburn end Jeff Holland and sent lots of blockers his way. Holland finished with 2 total tackles on the night, none for loss, no hurries, and no sacks. Also, with the flow of most run and pass plays to the sideline, this took Aurburn inside men Russell, Brown and Williams out of the game as well.
I have to credit the Auburn linebackers for keeping Auburn in the ball game as long as they did. They were stuck trying to chase down NFL-level Georgia backs on the boundary and for the most part kept things in check. Auburn sorely missed having senior Tré Williams in the game in the second half. Williams has been superb the past two seasons at getting the Tiger front seven aligned.
The secondary become more and more shorthanded as the game progressed. Top cornerback Carlton Davis could not go in the second half, and Tray Matthews seemed limited. Matthews is a great redemption story. As a Georgia Bulldog he was one of the defensive backs involved in Auburn’s famous 2013 “Miracle in Jordan Hare!” play that went for a 73-yard game-winning touchdown. Matthews transferred to Auburn and has been quite a leader for the Tigers over the past 3 years. I feel like Matthews has turned his life around and will be very successful at whatever he does, going forward.
It has been a rough year on special teams, this year. However, on SEC title day, this unit mostly came through, except for the aforementioned blocked field goal.
Auburn’s offensive line faced a good Georgia front that had a renewed focus on effort. In my opinion, Auburn’s offensive line held their own. Georgia made it a point to have more guys in the box than the line could block. Auburn has made hay this season on running the ball despite a numbers disadvantage, but that was not happening this day, given running back injuries.
One of the most frustrating things about the past three seasons has been running back attrition. Auburn has gone though SO many guys. The coaching staff has done a great job getting talent into this position. And so many have gone down. Peyton Barber left early for the NFL. Roc Thomas transferred to Jax State. Jovon Robinson was booted from the team. Kamryn Pettway has spent parts of two years hurt. Kerryon Johnson has been in and out of the starting lineup. Kam Martin has been hurt and limited. Auburn has had some great backs during the Malzhan era. Keeping them healthy and eligible has been a problem.
I can’t really blame the receivers at all for the result in the SEC Title game. This time, they weren’t able to make a play because the ball largely did not get to them. Still, I have to take my hats off to this group. They were the keystone cops early in the season, with tons of dropped balls. Those dried up in November, and this became a unit no one wanted to face. Auburn has a ton of talent coming back here, and the future is bright.
A lot was put on quarterback Jarrett Stidham in this game. He was asked not only to continue to blister a good Georgia defense, but he was also asked to win the game solely with his arm, and scrambling ability. It is important to remember that Stidham is only in his first full year as a starter. I don’t think even Cam Newton or Pat Sullivan could have won this game with the running back situation.
I was very, very worried in the aftermath of this game. We knew Arkansas was coming on a poaching run, and reportedly it offered coach Malzhan over 7 million dollars a year to jump to Arkansas. I was VERY worried about what the Auburn administration would do (or not do) with lame-duck athletic director Jay Jacobs on his way out. We’ve been mighty frustrated, mad-as-hell and concerned about a real lack of transparency out of the administration this year.
I will make no secret of the fact that there are a lot of things I find irritating about how Gus Malzahn deals with the press and dispenses information. We Auburn fans have been spoiled by past Auburn coaches like Pat Dye, Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville. Those guys would spit out one-liners like no one’s business. There was seldom any doubt about where they stood on this issue or that one, and they gave tons of feedback on what was happening with the program. Gus ain’t that guy!
Expectations are high at Auburn. That’s a fact. When expectations aren’t met, Auburn folks do not meekly accept it. For better or worse, Auburn folks will complain loudly and often. There is a tradition taught to all Auburn folks that one can work oneself out of all issues. That’s the answer, don’t accept mediocrity, and work through all issues. Coach Malzahn has run afoul of that philosophy a few times, and we certainly have seen a ton of calls for his head here in this space.
My take was that this is a very bad time to be looking for a new head coach in the SEC. Florida had to break the bank to get Dan Mullen, a guy whose SEC record is currently 32 wins and 40 losses. Texas A&M had to pony up $75 million over ten years to get Jimbo Fisher, who wasn’t even top dog in the ACC in recent years. Tennessee thus far has no takers, having been turned down by a dozen coaches. Think about that. Tennessee. A school with a stadium that holds over 100,000 rabid fans and has a ton of alumni with deep pockets can’t find a coach willing to take the job.
For better or worse, head coach Gus Malzahn coordinated the best offense in Auburn history in 2010 and was part of a national title. As a head coach, he has won the SEC West twice in 5 years. Texas A&M, LSU, Arky, MSU, and Ole Miss have not. Lack of communication aside, Malzhan’s teams win consistently. We’ll never be happy with his post-game pressers, but we have had tons of joy on the playing field. Malzahn has put together a string of top ten recruiting classes during his tenure and looks to have another one lined up. Kudos to the Auburn admins for keeping him away from Arkansas, and back at Auburn for years to come. Us peanut-gallery types will gripe and complain every time Auburn loses a game over future seasons, but I hope everyone understands that we could do far, far worse.
In this space, I’d like to thank coach Malzahn for the joy he’s brought to our Auburn hearts, and we are glad to have him back. It had to have been a difficult decision for him and his family.