Auburn's 45-20 loss at Georgia on Saturday was one of the stranger games I've witnessed. Auburn was leading 20-17 and seemed to be threatening to take over the game with 6:47 left in the third quarter. With 6:48 left in the fourth quarter, Georgia was ahead 45-20 and I was looking in the media guide to see when Auburn last gave up 50 points in regulation play (it was in a 51-10 loss at Florida in 1996).
Anyway, the question quickly became just what that meltdown in Athens said about Auburn football. Other than the disappointment that comes with letting a game get out of control like that, I'm not sure it said much of anything I didn't already know.
As lopsided as the game was, if Auburn defensive backs had knocked down a couple of passes, it might have been different. More than half of Georgia's 461 yards offense came on five plays. The truth about this Auburn team is that is severely limited on offense. If the defense struggles--as it did in second halves at Georgia and LSU--it is very difficult for Auburn to win.
The truth of life in the SEC is that it will always be very difficult for Auburn or any other SEC school to match talent player-for-player with Florida, Georgia and LSU. The reason is simple geography. Florida and Georgia are the dominant schools in the two most talent-rich states in the SEC. LSU is in a state with a lot of talent and has zero in-state competition.
That obviously doesn't mean Auburn can't beat those teams. In Tommy Tuberville's nine seasons, it has happened regularly. It does mean Auburn has less margin for error. It means Auburn can win 20-17 at Florida, come with an eyelash of winning at LSU and let things get out of hand at Georgia.
In the modern SEC, there are no guarantees for anybody. If you're off your game just a little, you can lose to a lesser team. If you're off your game a lot, you can be blown out. It will be no different a week from Saturday when Alabama visits Jordan-Hare Stadium. The team that makes the fewest mistakes and executes the best will win. Auburn has more talent than Alabama, but Florida had more talent than Auburn, Auburn had more talent than Mississippi State, LSU had more talent than Kentucky. You get the point. It's not about who has the best players 1-85. As long as there is not a mismatch talent-wise, It's about whose players perform the best on a given Saturday.
The loss to Georgia didn't mean Auburn is on a downward slide any more than the victory over Florida meant this team was on its way to an SEC championship. The future remains promising. Fans love to see high-flying skill players, but one thing about football that hasn't changed is that most games are won in the trenches. I don't know of any team that will be better equipped on the offensive and defensive lines next season than Auburn.
But it takes points to win, and Auburn coaches have to figure out a way to score more. They'll have to do it with a rookie quarterback in 2008.
There is no way to guess when Auburn or anyone else will next win a championship. Talent and coaching are large parts of that equation, but luck plays a role, too. If John Vaughn had not missed five field goal tries in Baton Rouge in 2005, Auburn might be sitting today on two SEC championship in the past three seasons. One Georgia Hail Mary kept the Tigers out of the championship game in 2002. That's just two examples of many involving many teams. That's why six different teams have won SEC championships since 1997.
Talk of next season, though, can wait. The Tigers are looking now toward the Iron Bowl, toward an opportunity to make school history by beating Alabama for the sixth consecutive season.
It'll be intense, as it always is. It'll probably be close, as it usually is. And when it's over, life and Auburn football will go on, win or lose.