All of Auburn football’s five losses in 2016 stung, but the Tigers won lessons in each. This week, SEC Country will examine what the Tigers can do to put themselves in a better position to win this season’s rematches.
2016: Georgia 13, Auburn 7 | 2017: at Auburn, Nov. 11
Of Auburn’s losses last season, the game that slipped away in Sanford Stadium left the worst taste.
And Gus Malzahn didn’t try to hide it in his postgame news conference.
“Obviously a disappointing loss. Really tough loss,” Malzahn said. “Our defense played outstanding. Our offense didn’t get it done today. It’s as simple as that. We didn’t get a first down in the second half. Give them credit. They had a good plan. We didn’t do a good job of executing and doing the things we need to do.”
But it stretched further than it. The Tigers converted only 2 of 12 attempts on third down. Explosive plays were nonexistent. Kevin Steele’s defense, which demonstrated all-out effort, deserved better.
A poor gameplan led to Auburn’s season-opening loss to Clemson and Texas A&M simply outplayed Auburn.
But in Athens? Malzahn’s team, even with injuries and issues, was better than the Bulldogs. So how to explain the loss? For starters, it’s the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
“I think the Georgia-Auburn rivalry is definitely one of those where it seems like even when Georgia doesn’t have a team that should win that game that you still have to be conscious of the fact that it’s the Georgia-Auburn game,” said Benjamin Wolk, who graduated from Georgia in 2014 and covers Auburn recruiting for SEC Country.
QB hunt begins
Quarterback Sean White was 6 of 20 passing against Georgia and later said he was “less than 100 percent.” He played through an injury to his throwing shoulder, which he hurt two weeks earlier against Ole Miss. And because Auburn led Georgia 7-0 at halftime, there was no talk of replacing White.
But the injury had a long-term impact for the Tigers.
“I think coaches really looked at that game and said, ‘Sean’s a great quarterback, he’s a guy we think we can win with in the SEC,'” Wolk said. “But when you’ve got 12-game SEC seasons and you get deep into those schedules, if there’s a guy that keeps getting hurt over and over again — you have to do something about that quarterback room.”
So that’s where the pursuit of Jarrett Stidham began. And quarterback wasn’t the only position impacted by injury.
Power of Pettway
By the Georgia game, Kamryn Pettway had gone from unknown H-back to possible Heisman contender.
That progression was largely the reason the CBS camera crew kept zeroing in on Pettway dressed in sweatpants on Auburn’s sideline. He missed the Georgia game with a leg injury suffered the previous week against Vanderbilt.
“I think that game in particular was Auburn coaches learning they can’t underestimate what Kamryn Pettway brings to a team,” Wolk said. “Really since Pettway got to Auburn, he was an H-back. When Jovan Robinson got dismissed from the team, people were talking about Chandler Cox, asking if he going to be taking carries. There was talk about Kamryn Pettway, but I don’t think even coaches knew what they had.”
Kerryon Johnson, who rushed for 99 yards and completed 2 passes against the Bulldogs, remains a valuable weapon for Auburn and he’ll play an important role in 2017. But Pettway provides the physical presence that was missing against Georgia.
“When you’ve got a 240-pound running back that can just bruise through SEC defensive lines and linebacking groups,” Wolk said, “it just makes life so much easier.”
Focus on the task at hand
Inside the Auburn Athletics Complex in the weeks leading up to the Georgia game the focus seemed to be on the next opponent. But the impending Iron Bowl and growing anticipation for a potential championship-type game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa was nearly impossible to avoid.
“I think what’ll be different this year is Auburn goes into that game with the mentality of, ‘Alright that’s not happening this year,'” Wolk said. “I don’t think they’re going to look ahead to Alabama, even though the Iron Bowl this year might be even bigger than the Iron Bowl last year could have been.”
Auburn needs to focus on the moment this season, instead of on the looming Civil War with the Crimson Tide.
“You don’t want to lose to Georgia or Alabama four years in a row,” Wolk said. “But you really don’t want to lose to Georgia four years in a row when they aren’t at the peak of their program.”
Tensions are high when Auburn plays Georgia. It’s the type of game that sometimes produces an undeserving winner — a rivalry game at its finest.
“I think that’s a good lesson for Auburn to learn going into this year, because if you just look at the talent of both teams, obviously that’s 10 weeks away, but if you look at the talent of both of those teams Auburn should win that game this year,” Wolk said. “There’s no question about that.”