Auburn football woke up on November 11 having not beaten a team ranked anywhere in the top-15 for more than three years. It went to bed on November 25 having defeated two teams ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings in 15 days.
The Tigers couldn’t sustain that momentum (or, more accurately, their success in the passing game) into Atlanta. But even Saturday’s 28-7 loss to Georgia shouldn’t obscure what Auburn and Gus Malzahn accomplished against their archrivals during the regular season — or how those accomplishments reshaped how Auburn fans should view the Tigers’ performance against the remainder of their schedule.
In short: this Auburn season was an unqualified success. And the coach who provided it should be rewarded accordingly. Let us count the ways:
Auburn played one of the most difficult schedules imaginable and won 10 games. When the College Football Playoff field is announced Sunday, there’s a good chance the Tigers will have faced three-quarters of the teams involved. For any other team in the SEC — and all but a tiny handful of teams across the country — a slate featuring Clemson, Georgia and Alabama would mark 9-3 as the absolute ceiling before the opening kick of the season.
But the Tigers will head off to their bowl game 10-3 anyway, their third 10-win regular season this decade.
Auburn put together one of the most dominant SEC seasons in its history. Take a look at where things stood entering Saturday:
Auburn is scoring 2.23 points to every point allowed to the opponent. This is the 6th best ratio over the last 60 seasons. The 2017 Auburn Tigers are only topped by the 1988, 1986, 2004, 1987 and 1974 teams that combined for a 52-7-2 record.
— StatTiger (@StatTiger) December 2, 2017
If you prefer your illustrations of dominance more visual than text-based:
More charts. Auburn in 2017 is dominating like no other Auburn team before. pic.twitter.com/mpqAQ5FLyU
— to hell with georgia part ii (@joshdub_) November 27, 2017
Clobbering Missouri, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Texas A&M didn’t do much for Auburn fans in the moment, since they couldn’t answer the central question of the season, viz. if Malzahn could still coax his offense into enough production to win top-15-type games. With that question answered resoundingly in the affirmative, it’s worth appreciating that the Tigers didn’t just roll past the bulk of their SEC schedule — they crushed it in program-historic fashion.
Auburn beat No. 1 Georgia. Auburn beat No. 1 Alabama. That Malzahn hadn’t beaten Georgia or Alabama since 2013 wasn’t always the most fair criticism to hold over his head — all three of those Crimson Tide teams ranked in the top-2 at the time and made the CFP — but it did double-emphasize that since his debut head coaching season, he hadn’t put the biggest scalps on the wall. And particularly given how vulnerable Georgia had been in 2015 and 2016, to graduate an entire class of seniors without one win over Auburn’s biggest rivals felt unthinkable.
Instead, the Tiger seniors leave having earned two of the most emotional, most emphatic, most satisfying, best wins Jordan-Hare Stadium has ever experienced. Some teams beat their rivals; some teams beat top-ranked teams (though not often); on some very rare occasions, some teams even beat top-ranked rivals. But to beat a top-ranked rival twice in three weeks is a college football Halley’s Comet, the kind of joy experienced by a infinitesimal percentage of the sports’ teams and athletes.
Auburn experienced that in 2017.
The fun is back. Way back in August — or, if we’re going by how far away the start of the season feels, 47 years ago — yours truly wrote that Auburn’s season would be judged not by any set number of wins, but by whether Malzahn could prove he could beat the teams that mattered on Auburn’s schedule, that his ceiling hadn’t been permanently lowered after 2013, that Tigers fans could watch their team in the biggest games of the year and come away thinking “That was fun!” again.
You tell me: did we have any fun this season?
— Paula Claunch (@AKAJaneRandom) November 26, 2017
Auburn’s 2017 season didn’t begin the way Auburn wanted it to, didn’t end the way Auburn wanted it to, and encountered the ugliest of speed bumps in the middle. But on two glorious Saturdays in November, Gus Malzahn first delivered the one win he had to deliver, then added an even bigger one to boot. He proved Auburn could still be an SEC and playoff contender on his watch. He made being a Tigers fan fun again.
In 2017, he succeeded. The Auburn Tigers succeeded. And after that success — with more of it surely on the way given Auburn’s roster and recruiting — it will be a crying shame if those two parties can’t come together to succeed again next season.