College football history remembers the last time there was a home stretch this meaningful on The Plains.
2013 was a magical year for Auburn, one in which everything seemed to fall perfectly into place, as if the heavens made it so (save the last 17 seconds of the late-game nightmare against Florida State in the new year).
However, four years ago, the playoff system wasn't yet in use. Fans were close to the conception of their beloved four-team formula for calculating a champion, as the 2014 National Championship marked the last time the Bowl Championship Series was used.
A lot went right for Nick Marshall, Tre Mason, Chris Davis and the terrific Tigers of destiny that was out of their control. Beating No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 Missouri certainly didn't hinder their chances, but the third-ranked Tigers also needed domino No. 2 Ohio State to fall in the Big Ten title game in order to book January tickets to Pasadena, California.
Urban Meyer's Buckeyes entered Lucas Oil Stadium as a six-point favorite over the Michigan State Spartans, however media was giving Braxton Miller's offense an overwhelming bode of confidence to get the job done.
Sparty shell-shocked the No. 2 team in the nation by spotting an early 17-0 lead. Ohio State responded in a massive way, scoring 24 unanswered to take a 24-17 lead in the third.
Hope was dwindling quick back on The Plains.
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The final quarter in Indianapolis included a go-ahead Spartans score to make it 27-24, followed by a momentum-shifting blocked punt by Ohio State. Michigan State stopped Miller on fourth down with under five minutes remaining, continuing its loose grip on BCS madness.
Astonishment then ensued on all three sides. MSU runningback Jeremy Langford galloped his way to a 26-yard dagger of a touchdown run to ice the game and Ohio State's hopes of a national title berth.
Michigan State beat the touchdown favorites by 10 points. Ohio State's season came crashing down to a disappointing finish. And for Auburn, the miracles just kept coming.
2017 is different. Destiny is being decided on the field instead of up above.
All of the cards are in the hands of the highest-ranked two loss team in the country. The remaining gauntlet will reveal if the Tigers are bluffing, or if a royal flush is to come.
No. 10 Auburn has a unique opportunity to make a late push toward their first appearance in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers first welcome No. 1 Georgia to town in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry before taking on Alabama in the Iron Bowl two weeks later.
As the men on the Jordan-Hare gridiron see it, games like these are why they came to the hollowed ground paved by the likes of Pats Dye and Sullivan, Bo Jackson and Cam Newton.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Tigers junior wideout Ryan Davis said after the win over Texas A&M in College Station. “It’s a big game, it’s a big rivalry.
"That’s why you come to Auburn, for games like Georgia. They’re in front of us right now.”
If Auburn can upset Kirby Smart's group, it may play the top-ranked squad in the nation twice in the span of three weeks.
Before Gus Malzahn and company can think about a conference-title, national championship related postseason, they first must upset the Dawgs, who have been indomitable this season to all nine of their opponents, and as of late to Auburn, which has dropped nine of the last 11 to the red and black.
Thanks to a program resurgence by Athens legend Smart, Georgia is back on top and has secured a spot in Atlanta's SEC Championship Game for the first time since losing to Alabama in 2012. The Bulldogs are light years ahead of where most though they would be. As recruiting and rebuilding models go in the SEC, the Dawgs have set the new standard.
If Georgia fans had been told back in Week 1 that they would have already sealed a trip to Atlanta by the time Auburn rolled around, skepticism would ensue.
Sophomore starting quarterback Jacob Eason, who was heralded as a high-ceiling QB in the preseason, sprained a ligament in his left knee in the season opener against Appalachian State. Smart's master plan had been foiled -- the coach could no longer redshirt 5-star true freshman Jake Fromm to precisely separate his two gunslingers.
Instead, Fromm's redshirt was burned, and the Warner Robins, Georgia native hasn't disappointed since. A historic Week 2 victory over now-No. 3 Notre Dame in South Bend solidified what most had been witnessing: offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was adapting the offensive to Fromm's play style.
Fromm relies heavily on the two-headed monster that lines up beside him in runningbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The Bulldogs one-two punch has immense experience and talent behind which Chaney's wheel turns. Chubb and Michel go three and eight respectively in SEC rushing yards, so the pressure of running the offense of the No. 1 team in the country hasn't been heavy on Fromm's shoulders.
Saturday's game might change that.
Kevin Steele's Auburn defense prides itself on stopping the run. The Tigers allow only 126 rushing yards per game, while the UGA rushing attack averages 279, good for eighth in the nation. Something has to give.
Even without 2016 leading rushing Kamryn Pettway available, Auburn boasts a 237 yards per game clip in the rushing department. Kerryon Johnson has spent his junior year aiding a dark horse Heisman campaign with 868 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns. His scores are tied for the third-most in Division I college football.
Even more impressive: Johnson has only played in seven of Auburn's eight games this season after suffering an injury in the season opener against Georgia Southern. For his efforts in limited action, the Madison, Alabama native is averaging 136 total yards and a pair of total touchdowns per outing.
“Really, we’ve got to go in with the mindset the same way we do any other game,” Johnson said. “Obviously, it’s a big one, but you can’t overhype it in your brain and you go out there and you start playing too fast and you make mistakes. In my mind, we’re going out, we’re playing Georgia. Who cares about the rankings? Never looked at them. I won’t in the future. I’m going to go out there and play my ball.”
Chip Lindsey's offense will need all of its available horsepower churning at full speed against Georgia's fifth-ranked rushing (89 ypg), third-ranked scoring (11.7) and fourth-ranked overall defense (254 ypg).
If the defenses load the box to stop the plethora of electric tailbacks, the game will be won through the air. Fromm leads the conference in QB rating, while Auburn's Jarrett Stidham ranks third. Georgia's ace has experience picking up big-time road victories, evident in the 20-19 win over Notre Dame.
Stidham is 1-2 this season against teams currently ranked in the CFP Top 25, the lone victory coming at home against now-No. 16 Mississippi State.
The win came just a week after Georgia's 31-3 shellacking of Dan Mullen's unit.
Stidham has been stellar in wins against SEC opponents, averaging 250 yards per game and tossing seven TDs in seven wins. In losses against Clemson and LSU, the former Baylor Bear completed only 19-of-50 passes and was sacked 14 times. Granted, Clemson's Front 7 accounted for 11 of those.
However, Auburn's ever-shifting offensive line hasn't found much success against highly-touted defenses, a trend that will need to shift if Stidham is to lead the Tigers to victory in the passing game.
The redshirt sophomore, fresh off an impressive 267-yard, three touchdown outing against the Aggies in his home state of Texas, is relishing the implications of the Top 10 showdown.
“I think it’s a big opportunity for us,” Stidham said. “Georgia is a great team. We haven’t had much success the last few years against them, so I like where this team sits right now. I think we’re ready to play.”
After Auburn vaulted to its highest ranking ever in the playoffs of No. 9 last season, they were upset by the unranked Dawgs in Athens last season, 13-7. Quarterback Sean White, who revealed later that he played the game with a shoulder injury, headed the Auburn offense that couldn't pick up a single first down in the second half of play.
Georgia has had Auburn's number in recent years. Midseason, the Bulldogs represented where Auburn wants to be -- a roster stacked with recruiting depth that sees itself in playoff contention at the end of the season.
Now the Tigers are in that position: in control of their playoff destiny. Auburn has the same road out now as if they were 9-0, losses vs. Clemson and LSU now insignificant.
A home loss Saturday makes the Iron Bowl just a chance to mess with possibly 11-0 Alabama. A win, however, cements Malzahn's seat as head coach and sets up a winner-take-all Iron Bowl.
Sounds a bit like another football season fans might recall.
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