Auburn was the choice of the assembled multitude at Media Days to win the SEC. Alabama was the choice to finish first in the SEC West, the only division in this mighty conference that has lately mattered. The disconnect was odd, though not really. Alabama or Auburn: Same as it ever was.
One of the two has won the SEC every year since 2008 save in 2011, when LSU broke the hold. But LSU lost to Alabama in the BCS title game, which became the Camellia State’s manifest destiny. The final five BCS title tilts included either Alabama (three times) or Auburn (twice). The inaugural College Football Playoff had Alabama as its No. 1 seed.
If it wasn’t one, it was the other. The more things changed – from McElroy to McCarron, from the Georgian Cam Newton to the Georgian Nick Marshall — the more they changed not one whit. Alabama or Auburn: No other state need apply.
On Saturday, real change appeared to arrive in the Deep South for the first time in nearly a decade. In the late-afternoon time slot – since TV runs the world, we might as well talk its talk – Auburn trailed LSU 24-0 at the half, 38-7 in the third quarter and 45-21 at the end. Given the late-in-the-East start time, Alabama-Ole Miss got out of hand, and not in the way anyone expected. The Rebels led 30-10 and won 43-37.
Not since Nov. 10, 2012 — when Georgia sunk Gene Chizik’s ghost ship 38-0 at Jordan-Hare and Texas A&M and Johnny Football stunned the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa – had the SEC’s tent poles been toppled on the same day. That famous upset was Alabama’s only loss of a second consecutive championship season. What’s different now is that, for both Camellia crews, much more losing could occur.
Having fallen from No. 6 in the preseason Associated Press poll to unranked, Auburn has four ranked opponents remaining. Alabama – at No. 12, it’s missing from the AP top 10 for the first time since Dec. 5, 2010 – has three, two of those on the road. Georgia has opened as a 1 ½-point favorite for its Oct. 3 date with the Tide; if the line holds, it would mark Bama’s first appearance as an underdog since the 2009 SEC championship against Florida. That was 72 games ago.
We pause, however, to note: It was only last season – after Ole Miss beat Alabama on Oct. 4 and Auburn lost at Mississippi State the next week – that folks stood ready to declare the Magnolia State superior to the Camellia crew. Auburn fell apart thereafter; the Tide did not. (The Mississippis got squashed in major bowls.) Even as we stipulate that this team, by Bama standards, appears pedestrian, nobody should weep for Nick Saban just yet.
Auburn? Different story. Coming off an 8-5 season, the Tigers were ranked high on a pass(er) and a prayer. The passer was Jeremy Johnson, who’s as big as the great Newton and the owner – or so it was said – of a stronger arm. The prayer was that the Florida washout Will Muschamp would turn Auburn’s wretched defense into a fortress. Reality: The Tigers struggled with Louisville), needed overtime to escape Jacksonville State and no-showed in Baton Rouge.
Auburn ranks 100th nationally in total defense, even worse than last season, and a can-you-believe-this 113th in total offense. Genius-no-more Gus Malzahn announced Tuesday he was benching Johnson for Sean White, who hasn’t thrown a collegiate pass. But you can’t bench 11 defenders, which means the Tigers are done.
The Tide are not. Even if the defense is leaking and there’s no No. 1 quarterback, there’s too much talent to dismiss this team in September. Only Ohio State can approach Bama’s manpower, and Saban didn’t become Saban by fiddling while the Capstone burns.
As bad as the Tide looked Saturday, they aren’t apt to turn the ball over five times every game and have a botched shotgun snap become a panicky pass that became a deflected Ole Miss touchdown. Georgia might well be favored on Oct. 3, but the Bulldogs won’t have played anybody like the Tide. Tested by Wisconsin and found wanting by Ole Miss, Bama will arrive wounded but angry. Were I Mark Richt, I’d have hoped for fat and happy.