ATLANTA — Kerryon Johnson spent a long moment on his knees on the still fresh Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf, while Roquan Smith ran the other way with the football he just fumbled as the Georgia sideline erupted.
Auburn’s star running back, Johnson gamely gave it his all after suffering a shoulder injury in last week’s Iron Bowl, but now he looked as crushed and crumpled as the recently imploded Georgia Dome next door.
Same goes for Auburn’s championship hopes, which like a poorly executed building demolition might collect LSU’s Citrus Bowl plans with the collateral damage.
More on that later. The story of the moment was how Georgia executed a 44-point turnaround at Auburn’s expense, rebounding from a 40-17 rout at Auburn on Nov. 11 to put a 28-7 smackdown on the Tigers on Saturday.
After rocketing all the way to No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings with November wins over then-CFP No. 1 Georgia and subsequent CFP No. 1 Alabama (26-14), Auburn had nothing left for the rematch. The Tigers took the early lead, then watched as that lead slowly collapsed.
This definitely had some of the same markings as Auburn’s blown 20-0 lead back on Oct. 14 in a 27-23 loss to LSU. Georgia mixed in just enough passing from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm (183 yards, two touchdowns) with a potent running game, which rumbled all over Auburn for 238 yards rushing. That's most former LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s unit surrendered all season. Georgia squeezed Auburn with its defense, led by championship game defensive MVP Roquan Smith at linebacker. And it got a big special teams play in the third quarter, as Auburn’s Mr. Automatic Daniel Carlson had his 31-yard field goal try blocked by DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle.
If good, Carlson’s field goal ties the score 10-10 and who knows? Instead, Georgia slowly steamed away with a third-quarter field goal and two fourth-quarter touchdowns, one on a 7-yard Fromm to Terry Godwin pass and another on a 64-yard run by the aptly named D’Andre Swift. That put Auburn’s lights out, and allowed former Georgia player and one-time LSU defensive backs coach Kirby Smart to breathe a little easier.
“Bo Jackson came up to me before the game,” Smart said, mentioning the Auburn legend. “He’s my childhood idol. I worshiped Bo Jackson. He comes up to me before the game and said, ‘A lot of pressure in this job, isn’t it?’
“I said, ‘Hell yeah, it is.’ But that’s why we do it, for moments like this. All that work for moments like this for these guys to enjoy.”
The Tigers impressively swept 75 yards on the game’s opening drive for a 3-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Stidham to Nate Craig-Myers. Early in the second quarter, Auburn was on the march again, facing third down-and-6 at the Georgia 14. A touchdown was in play. A Carlson field goal and at least a 10-0 lead seemed a lock. Instead, Davin Bellamy blindsided Stidham, forcing a fumble that Smith pounced on at the 16. Momentum whiplashed, as Georgia stormed 84 yards to tie the game on a 2-yard Fromm to Isaac Nauta pass.
“Any time you’re playing a championship game, turnovers are critical,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
So Georgia, SEC champion for the first time since beating LSU in this game in 2005, is poised to pole vault from No. 6 in the CFP rankings over No. 5 Alabama and into a semifinal in the Sugar Bowl or Rose Bowl. But where will Auburn go bowling and, more important for its program, will Malzahn still be its coach?
It’s possible, though it would be hard to say probable, that Auburn will fall from No. 2 in the CFP rankings so far down the final CFP top 25 that it misses one of the so-called “New Year’s Six” bowls: the Cotton, Peach, Orange or Fiesta. But it could happen. Four teams ranked in the final CFP top 11 have been left out of the New Year’s Six bowls in the first three years of the CFP.
If Auburn falls, it would certainly look attractive to the Citrus Bowl’s selection committee, especially compared to an LSU team that went to the Orlando, Florida, game last season. But where does LSU go? The Tigers could theoretically move up into a New Year’s Six slot, but odds appear long, considering LSU is No. 17 in this week’s poll. The Tigers probably get their originally expected slot in the Outback Bowl, but that’s the SEC’s decision to make.
As for Malzahn, he was certainly going nowhere if Auburn was in the playoffs. But now Arkansas is expected to make a hard run at that state’s native son. The prospect of a raise and pass out from under Nick Saban’s considerable shadow in Alabama certainly would have its appeal.
Maybe Malzahn would benefit from a do-over.
It certainly worked for Georgia.