BEFORE THE GAME: SEC CHAMPIONSHIP EDITION

November was quite a month for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, and he capped it off by knocking out the reigning, defending, heavyweight champion of the SEC.

I watched Saturday’s Iron Bowl with Auburn fans, hanging on every play. Watching your team play against Alabama is like driving in a car that you’re certain is about to break down; it’s difficult to get comfortable, let alone confident, because every snap of the ball could bring the disastrous play that changes the game.

As Auburn built its lead, though, people slowly realized what they were seeing. Auburn wasn’t just winning on the scoreboard; it was outplaying Alabama at its own game. Alabama couldn’t run the ball, Alabama couldn’t get stops on third down that would allow its defense to leave the field, and Alabama couldn’t convert when it faced third down on offense. Once Auburn had regained the ball with a twelve-point lead in the fourth quarter, Alabama’s goose was cooked. There would be no miraculous rally, there would be no historic collapse. 26-14.

Now, as Malzahn and the #2 Tigers head to Atlanta, the stakes only get bigger. A win over the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game will send them to the College Football Playoff for the first time in team history. A team that seemed dead and buried after a loss to LSU on October 14 is now just as alive as anyone else, and a coach who had seen his tenure become unsustainably turbulent weathered the storm with expert precision.

When Alabama had the ball, Auburn’s defensive line was consistently disruptive. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is deadly when he’s able to utilize his legs to buy himself additional time to find receivers, but Auburn’s ferocious pass rush was able to pressure him throughout the game. When Hurts was able to get rid of the ball, he rarely found open receivers. Alabama is typically able to impose its will to the degree that third downs are manageable, but it simply couldn’t keep drives alive.

When Auburn had the ball, it did an excellent job of keeping the Alabama defense off-balance by mixing up its passes and runs. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham ran the ball, running back Kerryon Johnson threw the ball, receiver Ryan Davis caught everything thrown his way, and the Auburn offensive line provided enough push to allow plays to develop to their fullest potential. Stidham’s passes gave his receivers an opportunity to gain yardage after the catch. After a fumble ended a red-zone possession in the first quarter, the Auburn offense made practically no mistakes.

It completes a remarkable turnaround; Malzahn teams were so prone to surrendering big leads and so frequently beaten by highly ranked opponents that Auburn fans were despondent after the team blew a 20-0 lead in Baton Rouge. Sure, Malzahn could recapture the confidence of his fanbase by rallying the team and defeating Georgia and Alabama for the first time since 2013, but how likely did that seem.

Seven weeks later, here they are. In Atlanta. One win away from a spot in the playoff.

WHAT TO WATCH:

–          Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson injured his ribs in the second half against Alabama, and his availability for Saturday is in question. How ready will he be? If not, will Kam Martin or Devan Barrett receive additional playing time?

–          Georgia’s offensive line was beaten soundly in the first meeting between these two teams, and quarterback Jake Fromm took a pounding. Have they been able to figure out a better way to attack Auburn’s defense in the last few weeks? Is there a better way?

–          Auburn has leaned on kicker Daniel Carlson all season, and his ability to help convert drives into points has proven invaluable. If Saturday’s game is closer than the first, and it all boils down to a Carlson attempt, Auburn should feel good about its chances.

PECK’S PICKS (LAST WEEK 1-4, YTD 40-33)

–          STANFORD +3.5 VS USC: The USC defense is still suspicious against the run, and Stanford’s offense has come around in the last few weeks. PECK’S PICK: STANFORD +3.5

–          OHIO STATE -6 VS WISCONSIN: The Buckeyes have pulled themselves off the mat after getting blown out by Iowa and look to clinch a playoff spot by overwhelming the Badgers. PECK’S PICK: OHIO STATE -6

–          TCU +7 VS OKLAHOMA: The Sooners look to take the nation’s best offense into the playoff and burst Alabama’s bubble in the process. PECK’S PICK: OKLAHOMA -7

–          NORTH TEXAS +11 VS FLORIDA ATLANTIC: Lane Kiffin took a moribund program and turned them into a force to be reckoned with. PECK’S PICK: FAU -11

–          GEORGIA +2 VS AUBURN: Georgia will be ready to compete, but Auburn is just too good for them at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -2

Enjoy the games!

Dan Peck
Co-Host, THE DRIVE (4-6PM, ESPN 106.7 FM, ESPNAU.com)
Host, AFTER THE GAME (Immediately following Auburn University football games, Wings 94.3 FM, WingsFM.com)
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DPeck@aunetwork.com