Josh Vitale, Montgomery Advertiser
AUBURN — A window opened for Auburn 240 miles west of town in Starkville, Mississippi, early Saturday afternoon.
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered what early reports indicate is a major, season-ending hip injury during a win over Mississippi State. You never want to see that, of course, no matter how fierce a rivalry it is. But you can’t ignore the fact that the Crimson Tide will be coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium in two weeks without their star player.
Win the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry over Georgia at home and do the same over Alabama in the Iron Bowl to end the regular season, and Auburn would be 10-2. With a little help, that might have been enough to make a real case for that No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff, if not get it.
But the operative word in that sentence is “win,” and that is what No. 12 Auburn did not do on Saturday. Georgia won the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, 21-14.
“Man, it’s tough because it’s at home in front of our fans. They really showed out and showed support,” right tackle Jack Driscoll said. “Georgia is one of our rivals. There’s really not much to say besides the fact that it’s a sickening feeling for all of us.”
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart acknowledges the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. Georgia defeated Auburn 21-14. (Photo: Jake Crandall)
The Tigers gave themselves a chance late. The home team entered the fourth quarter trailing by 21 points. It bounced back to score its first 14 of the game in the span of back-to-back drives. Quarterback Bo Nix hit Eli Stove for one score and ran for another. He had the ball in his hands twice more, down only one score, with plenty of time left on the clock.
Auburn just couldn’t get the one final score it needed to tie Saturday’s game, or even take the lead.
“We were talking, like, we’ve just got to score the first touchdown,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “‘We score the first touchdown, we’ll get the crowd back in it and get some momentum,’ and sure enough that’s exactly what happened. And, like I said, that was — we had a real chance to tie the game, you know, late. Real unfortunate. Real unfortunate.”
Auburn is still 7-3 through 10 games, with a gimme win over Samford on the schedule next week. It’s still going to be probably a top-15 team when the next set of playoff rankings are released on Tuesday. It will have a real chance to beat the Tua-less Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl to end the regular season.
But it is no longer a darkhorse threat to make the playoff. That possibility ended with a loss to Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
“It’s very tough, man,” senior defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “I don’t care what school you play against. Just knowing that you did all that, knowing that you can’t come in the locker room and enjoy it, it’s just — it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn points to a replay at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. Georgia defeated Auburn 21-14. (Photo: Jake Crandall)
Auburn can still have a good season. Beat Samford and Alabama, and that would give the Tigers a 9-3 record. That would be the third-best of Malzahn’s seven-year tenure, and it would be plenty to make a solid bowl game, and possibly even a New Year’s Six game with some help. Win that, and you’re talking about a 10-win campaign. This program has had only seven of those since 1990.
“We’ve got a lot to play for. We’re playing for our brothers. We can’t make everybody happy but we’ve got to make us happy. I’ve got to play for Bo. Bo’s got to play for me. I’ve got to play for Marlon. Marlon’s got to play for me,” junior linebacker K.J. Britt said.
“Everybody knows you want to win a national championship but you’ve got to play for your livelihood. That’s a big thing, man. I mean, we line up — we work hard. We work hard, 365 days a year, for 12 to 14 moments in a year with 60 minutes. That’s what we’ve got to play for.”
But given that Malzahn is now just 6-15 against LSU, Georgia and Alabama in his seven-year tenure as head coach, that one hurts.
“We’ve got a game next week, and then we play our rival right out here. That’s where we’re at,” Malzahn said. “I mean, we’re disappointed. I think everybody could see we’ve got a good football team. We’ve had some tough, close losses; that was another one. But we have great character in our locker room. Our guys are disappointed, but they’ll rebound. They’ll rebound and finish this thing.”