For a reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn in college football, consider what has happened to the Georgia and Auburn programs since they last met at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Entering the Nov. 13, 2010 game, Auburn was 10-0, en route to a 14-0 season and the national championship. Georgia was 5-5, headed toward a 6-7 finish that left coach Mark Richt on the hot seat.
Flash-forward to Saturday night, when the teams will meet again at Auburn.
The Tigers will show up with a 2-7 (0-6 SEC) record that has coach Gene Chizik’s job in jeopardy, while the Bulldogs will bring an 8-1 (6-1 SEC) record and dreams of reaching the national title game.
“Two years ago, Auburn didn’t lose a single game, and now they’ve only won two. It shows you that college football is crazy,” said Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings, who quickly added: “And also they had a guy named Cam Newton (in 2010).”
The Tigers will have a guy named Jonathan Wallace at quarterback Saturday. He’s a freshman, Auburn’s third starting quarterback of the season.
If Georgia wins the game, the Bulldogs will clinch the SEC East title and a berth in the SEC Championship game, just as Auburn clinched the SEC West with a 49-31 win over Georgia in 2010.
“We’ve been on the flip side of this,” Chizik said this week.
This time, the Tigers can only play the role of spoiler. An upset would keep rival Georgia out of the league title game.
“They’re going to come out pumped,” UGA quarterback Aaron Murray said. “They’re playing for their respect. They’re playing to ruin our season.”
After Newton’s single spectacular season as Auburn’s quarterback, the Tigers slipped to 8-5 (4-4 SEC) last season, including a 45-7 loss to Georgia in Sanford Stadium. This season, the Tigers have beaten only Louisiana-Monroe (in overtime) and New Mexico State — a far cry from the 2010 season in which they beat everybody.
A mind-boggling reversal? Not really, Richt contends.
“I think the big thing is just our league itself,” said Richt, a 12-year veteran of the SEC. “There is truly a very, very fine line between winning and losing. … Sometimes you get a break here or there and grab momentum, and it serves you well for the rest of the year. And sometimes you don’t ever find it.
“Even the year we went 6-7, how much different of a team did we have than some of the teams that might have gone 10-2? Probably not a whole lot different. (It was a case of) not making a play here, or making a bad decision there as a coach, or the other team just making a play that day.
“It’s not really all that mind-boggling to me because it’s just really a tough league.”
While Auburn has gone 10-12 since its 14-0 season, Georgia has gone 18-5 since its 6-7 season. And since losing its first two games last season, the Bulldogs have gone 18-3, including 18-1 in regular-season games.
“I think it shows we’ve worked our tails off, really,” Georgia wide receiver Tavarres King said. “Everybody is on board and is passionate about what we’re doing here. The tide has truly changed.”
“It is kind of a roller coaster; sometimes you do go up and down,” Richt said. “You just don’t know how close you might be to having a really good football team if you’re just patient for one more year. I think a lot of teams go backwards because they make changes when maybe they are on the verge of something good happening. … I would imagine it’s hard to figure out as a decision maker if a team is close or not.”
Auburn, which ranks last in the SEC in rushing defense and has intercepted only one pass this season, has stayed close in many of its games, at least for a while.
The Tigers led Clemson 19-16 in the fourth quarter of their season opener at the Georgia Dome, but lost 26-19. They were within three points of Arkansas and four points of Ole Miss entering the fourth quarter, but lost by 17 and 21. They lost by two points to LSU and by four to Vanderbilt.
But then there was a 63-21 loss to Texas A&M in which Auburn trailed 42-7 at halftime and allowed 671 yards.
Chizik was asked recently if he could have imagined a season like this just two years after lifting the national-championship trophy.
“I don’t think you ever imagine that,” he said. “What you have to understand in the coaching world is that you can have a season like we had two years ago, and then you can have seasons that aren’t anywhere near that as well. The main thing is, when you hit some of the valleys you’re going to hit, (to) maintain steadfast in what you’re trying to accomplish and working every day in a direction to improve.”
– Tim Tucker
(Chip Towers contributed to this article.)