Everybody loves an underdog with a feel-good story.
Nobody has ever said, “I don’t really like the guy with a slingshot. I’m a big Goliath fan.”
But the obvious fact is that when the confetti flies and championship trophies are awarded, the people on the podium almost always have more in common with the bully than the overachiever.
That’s true in college football. It was on full display last week in Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, where the Auburn Tigers were completely overwhelmed by the more talented Georgia Bulldogs. Auburn was beaten 27-6 in a game that wasn’t as close as the 21-point margin would indicate.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix certainly has the credentials to be a big-time winner at the college level and beyond. He’s the son of Auburn legend Pat Nix. He was a state champion at Pinson Valley High School and one of the highest-rated quarterback recruits in the country.
But, at this rate, we may never know if Nix could have lived up to his lofty potential. That’s because the young men being charged with protecting him have more in common with David than Goliath.
Auburn’s offensive line was completely overwhelmed by Georgia. The problem was not a matter of missed assignments, mental errors or play schemes. The problem was slingshots don’t often work against five-star talent.
Auburn’s starting offensive line does not include a single blue-chip recruit. It does include some overachievers who are easy to like. There are two young men who are cancer survivors. The center is an aerospace major who starts every day flying in addition to his busy academic and football schedule. One starting guard is a transfer from Akron, Ohio. A starting tackle was a lightly regarded defensive player before switching to offense after arriving at Auburn.
The top backup is a player who has had more major knee surgeries (three) than he has knees (two).
There’s not a bad young man in the group. There’s also not a player who could make the two-deep at Alabama or Georgia.
Auburn fans are justifiably upset about the Tigers’ performance in Athens. But the domination of the offensive line made everything else look worse than it actually was.
The Tigers’ defense gave up 27 points despite the Auburn offensive not being able to stay on the field. If we could guarantee the coaches at Alabama or Clemson they would give up exactly 27 points every Saturday, they would begin preparing to face each other again in the national championship game.
Auburn played against Georgia with one defensive back (Jaylin Simpson) out with an injury and another (Smoke Monday) ejected from the game for targeting after playing only one series.
The defensive performance was not up to Auburn standards, but it wasn’t a sign this won’t be a very good defense.
But will it matter?
It won’t unless something dramatic happens on offense. If that happens, all of Auburn’s goals are still attainable.
As always, we all overreact to one game. But one loss is what most teams are dealing with already this season.
Every Big 12 team except Oklahoma State has lost a game. This weekend’s marquee game in the conference features one-loss Texas against two-loss Oklahoma.
In the ACC there are five undefeated teams, including Notre Dame. But that number will be reduced by at least one when Clemson faces Miami this week.
Even in the SEC, there are only four undefeated teams through two weeks. Either Georgia or Tennessee will lose this weekend. Alabama and Florida face tricky road games at Ole Miss and Texas A&M, respectively.
Auburn’s schedule continues with a home game against Arkansas, which has been better than expected in a loss to Georgia and win at Mississippi State.
The Tigers are favored in that game and should be favored against South Carolina and Ole Miss the following two weeks. If they can survive those three games, then maybe better results are ahead against LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Alabama.
So, the season is not lost. But it could spin out of control quickly if something isn’t done about the long-term talent on the offensive line. This is the kind of problem that is best addressed through better recruiting, which takes time.
Will Gus Malzahn find a magical answer for the short term? For the sake of his job, Auburn’s program and Nix’s health, he better hope so.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m. and on the iHeart app.
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