AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — When the Auburn Tigers bottomed out, coach Gus Malzahn felt compelled to remind everyone that it wasn’t “the end of the world.”
It really wasn’t.
The sixth-ranked Tigers have rebounded strongly from that loss to LSU on Oct. 14 and soared back into Southeastern Conference and playoff contention. A 40-17 dismantling Saturday of No. 7 Georgia, which came into the game atop the playoff rankings, proved how far they’ve come since blowing a 20-point lead to LSU .
It certainly wasn’t the end of Auburn’s season.
“That was an extremely tough loss,” Malzahn said. “When you face adversity, you either get better from it or you fold your tent. Our team got better from it. We’ve played really good football since then.
“Our guys have been urgent. We’ve been talking about championship urgency the last three weeks, and they’re doing it. They carried it over to the field (Saturday) against one of the better teams in America. We beat them soundly.”
Auburn jumped four spots in Sunday’s Associated Press poll, and figures to make a similar leap from No. 10 in the playoff rankings.
Tailback Kerryon Johnson and quarterback Jarrett Stidham delivered big plays for an offense that struggled at times early in the season. The defense held Nick Chubb, Sony Michel & Co. to 46 rushing yards.
And it was the previously unbeaten Bulldogs making the costly mistakes not Malzahn’s Tigers, unlike the previous losses to LSU and Clemson, when Auburn managed just 117 total yards.
“I think the biggest difference is we learned to finish,” said Johnson, who ran for 167 yards and took a screen pass 55 yards for a touchdown against Georgia. “The LSU game, we were doing the same thing to those guys that we did here in the first half, we just didn’t finish. We took our foot off the gas. But we learned to finish and we learned that it was necessary. I think the proof is in the pudding.”
The proof didn’t really come until Saturday despite double-digit wins at Arkansas and Texas A&M. The ultimate proof in this state would come in two weeks.
Auburn will be a heavy favorite against Louisiana-Monroe before hosting No. 1 Alabama, which is expected to take over the top playoff ranking.
The winner faces the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game.
Perhaps the Crimson Tide got a similar turnaround game only without losing. Alabama survived a major scare in a 31-24 victory over Mississippi State when Jalen Hurts hit freshman DeVonta Smith for a 26-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds left to preserve hopes for an undefeated season.
It also set the stage for a high-stakes Iron Bowl. The Tide faces FCS team Mercer in its tuneup before heading to Auburn. Coach Nick Saban said after the game wins like that where a team has to overcome a significant challenge can do “a lot for everybody coming together.”
“We haven’t always had that when we win 49-0,” Saban said. “So it’s important that you do that. We still have big games coming up. Really big games. And hopefully we can get our players better, because I do think we need to improve if we’re going to finish like we want to.”
Ditto for Auburn. The Tigers’ offense has improved significantly after a pedestrian start to the season.
Johnson is eighth nationally in yards rushing per game and No. 2 in scoring. Stidham has settled in nicely after being out of football last season following his departure from Baylor. And receivers like Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton have been turning in some big plays.
“We knew we were a good team,” Malzahn said. “We had some growing pains early. We had some adversity, things happened, and we didn’t respond great. We continue to get better. I’ve said it before: top teams will find ways to get better.”
Auburn certainly has done that.
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