There were enough what ifs and whys to last a lifetime. What if Dontarrious Thomas had held on to an interception he had briefly in his hands on Georgia's last drive? What if Horace Willis hadn't stumbled ever so slightly as he prepared to jump for David Greene's desperation pass in the end zone? What if Roderick Hood had not turned his ankle while making a spectacular dive to knock a pass away on the previous play and had to leave the game? What if Auburn could have made a first down, just one first down, on any of six consecutive possessions? What if fullback Brandon Johnson had not been carted off the field in the third quarter? Why did officials not call a blatant block in the back on Georgia's final punt return or a pushoff just as blatant on a 41-yard pass to Fred Gibson that put the Bulldogs in position to win?
Auburn coaches and players will always wonder, but the only thing that mattered in the end was that David Greene completed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Michael Johnson on fourth-and-15 with 1:25 left in the game and seventh-ranked Georgia won 24-21.
It was another numbing disappointment in a season that has seemed to have one every few weeks. Southern California drove to the winning touchdown in the final minutes in the opener. Florida stole a 30-23 overtime victory in Gainesville after Damon Duval misfired on a 23-yard field goal in a finish just as devastating as Saturday's. But this time it was Georgia, the most ancient of foes. The stakes were immense. Auburn should have won, but the football gods decreed otherwise. Georgia earned a spot in the SEC Championship Game, where it will probably play LSU or Arkansas and win easily.
Auburn could still get there for a rematch, but the odds are long. It would take a victory over Alabama and one loss each by LSU and Arkansas. LSU plays Ole Miss at home Saturday and Arkansas plays at Mississippi State. LSU and Arkansas play in Little Rock the following week. Reality is Auburn is not likely to go to Bryant-Denny Stadium and beat Alabama. The Crimson Tide overwhelmed LSU 31-0 in Baton Rouge last Saturday. That in itself is not so ominous for Auburn, which put a similar whipping on the Bayou Bengals. But Alabama has won five straight SEC games, all by 14 points or more. That is certainly ominous for an Auburn football team that won't go into the game fully armed.
Auburn is severely crippled. Johnson suffered a high ankle sprain and might not play. All it takes to know how severe that loss would be is to look what happened to the running game after he left the field. Tailback Ronnie Brown is limping on a sore ankle. So is linebacker Karlos Dansby. Quarterback Jason Campbell is battered and bruised. Defensive end Mayo Sowell is lost for the season.
There is little doubt the Tigers will pick themselves up and get ready to play. There is little doubt they will put it on the line against Alabama like they did against Georgia. That isn't always enough. It wasn't enough against Georgia, not quite.
Alabama, which can't win a championship because of NCAA sanctions, accomplished its major goal against LSU, assuring itself of a record that would have in another season meant a trip to the SEC Championship Game. That would seem a little hollow if Auburn was to pull an upset at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide, no doubt, will put it all on the line, too.
At Auburn, memories are still fresh of a 31-7 embarrassment at the hands of Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium a year ago. It wrecked what had been a fine Auburn season and started a slide that carried all the way through the Peach Bowl. A sign hangs in the Auburn weight room that reads simply "11-23-02," the date of next Saturday's game. Auburn will be inspired, but inspiration doesn't often overcome superior firepower. And as things stand now, Alabama has superior firepower.
Regardless of what happens in Tuscaloosa, Tommy Tuberville has Auburn's football program on the move upward. These Tigers play with heart and dedication. Though some scoff at the notion, Auburn is playing with the youngest team in the SEC. The talent level is growing toward championship levels.
The offense will be back almost intact next season, losing only center Ben Nowland, tight end Lorenzo Diamond and wide receiver Marcel Willis among the starters. The defense loses linebacker Mark Brown, safety Travaris Robinson plus cornerbacks Roderick Hood and Horace Willis.
The future is bright, but there's not a lot of interest in the future, not now. First there is there is the biggest game of this season or any season in this state. It's Iron Bowl week.