AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn entered the College Football Playoff conversation in resounding fashion Saturday afternoon, thumping top-ranked and previously unbeaten Georgia, 40-17, behind a formidable rushing attack and amid myriad Bulldogs errors.
No two-loss team has made the four-team playoff since its debut in the 2014-15 season. But the No. 10 Tigers' romp sets up a showdown here in two weeks with archrival Alabama — which entered the weekend undefeated and next in line to succeed Georgia atop the playoff rankings — for a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Win that, and a high-stakes rematch with the Bulldogs would await.
“This is why you play college football, in my opinion,” said Auburn sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who accounted for four touchdowns. “It’s just so much fun. I mean, I really can’t put it into words because you grow up watching games like this, and when you get an opportunity to play in a game like this, and especially win like this, it’s truly a blessing.”
Running back Kerryon Johnson led the way with 233 yards from scrimmage, including 167 rushing on 32 carries, against the No. 5 run defense in major college football. The junior’s 55-yard touchdown catch with 6:13 to play in the fourth quarter provided Auburn (8-2, 6-1 SEC) with its final points in front of an announced 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Tigers gained 488 yards of total offense in all.
The Bulldogs (9-1, 6-1), meanwhile, have secured the SEC East title but are certain to drop in the next playoff rankings, set to be released Tuesday night. Still, Georgia remains in the mix for a berth in the national semifinals with a possible shot at claiming the SEC championship.
The outcome came into focus over the first seven minutes of the third quarter, during which time Auburn grew its lead to 30-7. Stidham’s 23-yard toss to wide receiver Ryan Davis produced that margin two plays after a Davis 26-yard punt return that included a personal foul against Georgia’s Sony Michel.
On the scoring pass, Davis caught the ball steps beyond the line of scrimmage and wove through congestion in the middle of field to the end zone for his fifth touchdown this season.
The Tigers had opened a 23-7 advantage shortly after the ball went through Georgia return specialist Mecole Hardman’s arms and bounced off his lower body while he tried to field a punt. Auburn’s Darrell Williams fell on the loose ball at the Bulldogs’ 23-yard line, leading to Stidham’s seven-yard run on read-option keeper to the front right corner of the end zone.
“It felt really good tonight,” said Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn, whose team was playing a home game for the first time in more than a month. “It felt like it’s coming together. Our crowd was unbelievable, and our guys gave them something to cheer about. It was a good win.”
A miscue on the part of the Georgia special teams allowed the Tigers to extend a drive that yielded Stidham’s 42-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Darius Slayton for a 16-7 lead with 4:09 left in the first half.
The touchdown came two plays after officials assessed a roughing penalty on the Bulldogs’ D’Andre Walker, who leapt over the line of scrimmage and fell into punter Aidan Marshall. The 15-yard penalty and automatic first down set up Auburn at its 46 and earned Walker a stern talking-to on the sideline from members of the Bulldogs’ coaching staff.
Additional mistakes hampered Georgia, which managed just 46 rushing yards, in the final minutes of the second quarter. On third and eight, for instance, Hardman came open by himself near the Auburn 20-yard line, but the Bulldogs’ offensive line could not hold up, and quarterback Jake Fromm absorbed a sack for a loss of seven.
Then on the final snap of the first half, Georgia place kicker Rodrigo Blankenship pulled a 42-yard field goal attempt as time expired. The redshirt sophomore missed for just the second time in 13 tries this season.
Trailing for the majority of the first quarter, Auburn claimed the lead for good on Daniel Carlson’s 30-yard field goal. The senior place kicker had a busy first half, making three field goals, the last of which came with 12:03 to go in the second quarter after the Tigers stalled at the 13.
With the decibel level at a fever pitch as Georgia began with the game’s opening possession, the Bulldogs marched 70 yards on eight plays capped by Nick Chubb’s one-yard run for a 7-0 lead. Chubb took the snap out of a wildcat formation to score his 10th touchdown of the season during a series in which Georgia had consecutive plays covering 28 and 26 yards.
The lead shrunk to 7-3 on the next possession when Carlson connected on a 54-yard field goal with plenty of distance to spare. Auburn had reached the Bulldogs’ 37 but settled for Carlson’s kick matching his season long following an incompletion and run for no gain.
Carlson made his 17th field goal of the season to draw the Tigers to 7-6 with 1:20 remaining in the first quarter. Auburn had marched to the Bulldogs’ 15 in eight plays, but a false started set up third and 15, and Stidham threw an incomplete pass amid heavy pressure.
“I think it was a huge statement,” said Slayton, originally a Georgia commit before changing his decision to Auburn. “Obviously they’re the number one team in the country, and they’re a really good team, so it was good for us to come out here and get this win.”