What was supposed to be an opportunity to step back in competition and work on what ails Auburn instead became a five-alarm fire Saturday afternoon.
As halftime approached, Georgia State led Auburn by 12. For those not familiar, Georgia State is a large commuter college that plays mid-major football in a former baseball stadium and has only been playing the game for a dozen seasons. In its first two games this season, the Panthers got shellacked by a combined score of 102-27, courtesy of Army and North Carolina. (Hint: one is not like the other).
So, an Auburn defense that needed work on getting pressure on the quarterback instead spent a half getting gashed by the run. Auburn came in with the rep of being one of the stingiest on the ground in the land. Allowing but 45 yards rushing a game, Georgia State surpassed that mark five snaps into the game.
And an offense looking to correct its Red Zone deficiencies was instead sticking with bad habits – settling for a couple of field goals, then three and four. While quarterback Bo Nix wasn’t solely to blame, you know fans were clamoring for his backup, T.J. Finley.
And if Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo weren’t willing to make the move at QB, how about trying Finley at safety? Or linebacker?
A monumental upset was in the works. But if you’ve seen this play before, you knew how it would turn out.
Until it almost didn’t.
Linebacker Zakoby McClain returned to the lineup in the second half after serving his penance as a spectator due to last week’s incorrect targeting call vs. Penn State. And the defense responded.
So did Auburn’s special teams, when Caylin Newton blocked a Georgia State punt and he’s-everywhere Barton Lester pounced on it for a touchdown.
Then Harsin made the move. Finley in for Nix. And the offense went into drive mode for a makeable Anders Carlson field goal — which he inexplicably missed.
But the initial momentum seemed a mirage. Auburn was stopped on a three and out. On the next possession, a promising drive ended with a Tank Bigsby fumble.
And then, a miracle. Taking over at its own 2, Auburn went 98 yards for the winning score, with Finley scrambling wildly on fourth down to find time to hit Shedrick Jackson in the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown and a 27-24 lead with 45 seconds left.
A pick six would make the final margin 34-24, which in no way explains how Georgia State was the better team for 59 minutes.
A week ago, Auburn’s defense made Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford look like the second coming of Aaron Rodgers. This week, the Tigers made Georgia State running back Tucker Gregg (12 carries for 150 yards) look like Red Grange.
A week ago, Auburn’s offense played to the wire against a Top 10 foe at Penn State, losing on a pass deflection in the final seconds. This week, the Tigers played to the wire against a Bottom 50 program at home, only to pull victory from the abyss.
What ails Auburn is more than breakdowns and an emotional hangover.
In just a month’s time, Harsin and his staff have lost the confidence of the fan base. And now they’re faced with a legitimate quarterback controversy.
With an October schedule that’s arguably the nation’s most treacherous, restoring the faith is a monumental task.
Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist.