The course of this year’s SEC championship game was set with just under 13 minutes left in the second quarter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham received a snap in shotgun, bounced in the pocket, and began to roll to his right. Then Georgia’s Davin Bellamy came screaming around the edge, smashing Stidham from the blindside and producing a fumble that the Bulldogs recovered at their own 16-yard line.
Auburn had been firmly in control until this turnover—of this contest, which it led 7-0, and apparently of the nonsensical laws that govern the college football universe. After upsetting top-ranked Alabama in last week’s Iron Bowl, it had established itself as the sport’s primary agent of chaos, the kind of group that can cause the most seemingly indestructible machine to falter. This fumble was the moment that magic ran out. The script flipped: Georgia scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession and methodically squeezed the life out of the Tigers for the rest of Saturday afternoon. It won 28-7, punching its ticket to the College Football Playoff.
This is who the Bulldogs are. They play smart and efficient, and know how to demoralize an opponent at precisely the right time. They run all over you with a backfield that boasts an endless supply of NFL-caliber ball carriers, rip you limb from limb with a linebacker who may be the best in the FBS, and wear you down with a quarterback who rarely succumbs to mistakes. Jake Fromm went 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards with two touchdowns in this one, building on a freshman campaign that’s been quietly incredible: He entered championship Saturday ranked sixth nationally in passer rating (167.72) and tied for fifth in yards per attempt (9.6).
Auburn steamrolled Georgia 40-17 when these teams met three weeks ago, a result that made many people forget about everything the Bulldogs had achieved prior to that game. Outside of a 20-19 win at Notre Dame in Week 2, the Dawgs had defeated every opponent they’d faced by at least 14 points, and whipped Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi State by a combined total of 114-10. When Georgia got rid of head coach Mark Richt and hired Kirby Smart as his successor heading into last season, this triumph was exactly what the administration had in mind. It had suffered enough heartbreak; it was willing to trade in a track record of not-quite-good-enough consistency for a shot at replicating a model of systemic, soul-sucking destruction.
Auburn got to this point by being college football’s foremost sorcerer, but on Saturday sorcery wasn’t enough. The ball stopped bouncing the Tigers’ way, and a program that hadn’t won a conference title since 2005 returned to glory. The machine won.