ATLANTA — After two exhilarating wins against No. 1 Georgia and Alabama during the month of November, Auburn went into the SEC Championship Game energized and ready to compete for a title.
“This is exactly what our goals were at the beginning of the year, to play in the SEC championship,” quarterback Jarrett Stidham said. “It wasn’t hard to get up for this team at all. We were all really, really excited players-wise, coaching staff-wise. Everybody was really excited for this game. Just didn’t go our way tonight.”
Though an emotional hangover wasn’t problematic for Auburn, turnovers were. As a result, the Tigers came up short for the third time in 2017, falling to Georgia 28-7. The loss, in many ways, was similar to those of the past. Auburn’s offense stalled after a first-quarter touchdown and didn’t find its way to the end zone again.
Still, it was the turnovers that ended up costing Auburn a championship trophy and likely a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“Obviously, it was a tough loss. We got off to a tough start. Then, we had some uncharacteristic things happen,” Gus Malzahn said. “We played really good football the second half of the season. We had a blocked field goal and two turnovers there that were really tough.”
The first fumble of the night came in the second quarter when Stidham was sacked by Davin Bellamy from behind and Georgia’s Roquan Smith recovered it. Georgia went on to score after that mishap.
Auburn had a chance to tie the game at 10 apiece after halftime, but Daniel Carlson’s 31-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
“Any time you’re playing a Championship Game, turnovers are critical,” Malzahn said. “Not just that one, but the other one. And the blocked field goal was big at the time. It was a very close game. [A] blocked field goal is like a turnover. We were fighting over here because of those situations.”
The hill Auburn was climbing only got steeper after Johnson fumbled at the start of the third quarter. Smith recovered and the Bulldogs capitalized in a big way.
Johnson had been questionable to play in the days leading up to the championship game after suffering a shoulder injury in the Iron Bowl. The junior started the game but wasn’t his usual self.
“Yeah, KJ, first of all, I can’t say enough about how tough he is and the guts he has. He was banged up,” Malzahn said. “He had some rib issues. He had a shoulder issue. We didn’t really know if he was going to play. He did a little bit of stuff in practice, but he was very, very limited. Pregame, as the adrenaline got going, he felt he could go. He gave us all he had. You could see it wasn’t 100 percent. But he helped get us here, and he’s a great player.”
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey had depended on Johnson’s production as Auburn tore through the SEC West. The first-year coordinator had high praise for his star rusher, even in the minutes after a difficult loss.
Johnson led the way for the Tigers as Auburn went on its winning streak following a loss at LSU. Though his fumble hurt his team’s chances, it was the overall play of Malzahn’s team and Lindsey’s offense that led to Georgia being dubbed the conference champs.
“Well, you know, obviously we didn’t play our best,” Lindsey said after the game in the locker room. “You’ve got to tip your hat to Georgia; they played really well and were the better team tonight, for sure.”
Georgia’s defense played well, bringing different looks against Auburn and pressured Stidham like it hadn’t in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Still, the loss was more because of mistakes that were the Tigers’ own fault — some of which the team was still pondering as it prepared to board the bus back to The Plains.
“It’s hard to know without really watching the film,” Lindsey said. “Nothing really different scheme-wise, just obviously we turned it over twice. We didn’t do that the other day and I think when you do that against good teams it’s going to be hard to score.”