ATLANTA (AP) — When Gus Malzahn guided Auburn to the national championship game in his first season as head coach, it was all such a whirlwind.
If not for two stunningly fluky wins, it never would’ve happened.
This season, it feels like Malzahn and the Tigers really earned it.
With two huge victories in November, No. 4 Auburn (10-2) claimed a spot in Saturday’s Southeastern Conference title game against No. 6 Georgia, with a berth in the College Football Playoff surely going to the winner.
“This is a different journey,” Malzahn said before putting his team through a walkthrough at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new $1.5 billion facility that is hosting the SEC championship for the first time.
In 2013, Malzahn’s first Auburn team pulled off an improbable win against Georgia when, on fourth-and-18, Nick Marshall threw a 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining. The ball was actually overthrown, but a Georgia defender tipped it right into Ricardo Louis’ hands to complete the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare.”
Of course, that wasn’t even the Tigers’ most memorable play of the season. In the Iron Bowl, Alabama came up short on a potential game-winning field goal and Chris Davis returned it for a touchdown from the very back of the end zone — a 109-yard play that will forever to be known as “Kick Six.”
“Our 2013 team was outstanding,” Malzahn said.
“We’re just in a lot more stable position,” he said. “We’re in a position that I think we can sustain this type of level for a period of time.”
It didn’t look that way early on, when the Tigers endured an ugly 14-6 loss at Clemson, giving up 11 sacks and managing just 117 yards. And all hope of reaching the playoff seemed lost after Auburn squandered a 20-point lead at LSU.
“That was some tough times,” Malzahn said. “Are we going to fold our tent, or are we going to roll up our sleeves?”
Auburn got back into the mix with a 40-17 rout of Georgia, which was No. 1 in the CFP standings at the time. Last weekend, the Tigers knocked off another top-ranked team, wearing down Alabama for a 26-14 victory that clinched the SEC West title.
“I really like the way we got here,” Malzahn said. “The last couple of weeks, we’ve been peaking.”
Georgia, of course, is eager for a rematch against its oldest rival after that dismal performance at Auburn. Adding to the intrigue: the teams played just three weeks ago.
“Not many people get that second opportunity,” coach Kirby Smart said Friday. “We’re going to find out a lot about our team.”
A year ago, after Auburn went 8-5 for the third season in a row, there were questions about Malzahn’s long-term future as the Tigers coach. Now, the only questions are how much it might take to keep him from bolting for another job.
Georgia also struggled to an 8-5 finish in Smart’s first season, making some folks wonder why the Bulldogs fired longtime coach Mark Richt.
My, how things have changed.
“We learned a lot of lessons our first season, a lot about our players, and I think they learned a lot about us,” Smart said. “I don’t think we’re playing in this game if we don’t learn the lessons we learned last year.”
Some things to watch for when Auburn faces Georgia for the SEC title:
JOHNSON’S STATUS: Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson is nursing an injured shoulder and will be a game-time decision, according to Malzahn. If Johnson can’t go, the Tigers will be deprived of a key weapon who rushed for 1,276 yards and 17 touchdowns. A committee of backs — Kam Martin, Malik Miller, Devan Barrett — is ready to step in, but they would be hard-pressed to match Johnson’s production.
GEORGIA’S DYNAMIC DUO: Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are especially eager to get another shot at Auburn. Both running backs had their worst showing of the season in the first meeting, with Chubb limited to 27 yards and Michel 21.
STIDHAM VS. FROMM: Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham has been on a roll since a dismal 9-of-26 performance against LSU, completing 72 percent of his passes for 1,172 yards, with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Georgia’s freshman signal-caller, Jake Fromm, has done a good job of managing the offense and limiting mistakes, relying largely on the SEC’s top running game. If the Bulldogs struggle again on the ground, he may be forced to do a lot more through the air.
DEFENSIVE STALWARTS: These teams feature two of the country’s top defensive players: Auburn outside linebacker Jeff Holland and Georgia inside linebacker Roquan Smith. Holland has nine sacks, 12 tackles behind the line and 22 quarterback hurries. Smith leads the Bulldogs with 100 tackles, including 62 solo hits.
SPECIAL TEAMS, INDEED: Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson is a huge weapon, connecting on 21 of 27 field goal attempts including four of at least 50 yards. Georgia’s specialists — kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and punter Cameron Nizialek — have been a big part of their team’s success.