ATLANTA — As the Auburn team busses drove past the hulking metal origami-shaped stadium just outside of downtown Atlanta, there were painful memories. They’d lost the SEC Championship Game loss to Georgia in heartbreaking fashion there last December, falling quarter shy from what they believed would be a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff. Then, a month later, seeking some semblance of vindication, they were instead embarrassed by a loss to UCF in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
All offseason this team was reminded of its failures in the capital of college football. Everyone, from coaches to media members to family, had hammered that home. UCF’s never-ending self-coronations as national champs had helped, too. And, frankly, they were all sick of it.
Looking out on Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with what players described as a nasty taste still in their mouths from the previous season, they decided to turn the page. In the words of running back Kam Martin, “Everyone flipped the switch” in that moment.
On the field during pregame warmups the next day, quarterback Jarrett Stidham said he noticed it, too. He pulled coach Gus Malzahn aside and told him he thought something felt different this time. Maybe it was the chemistry. They were all so close, he said.
After No. 9 Auburn beat No. 6 Washington 21-16 on Saturday in a game that tested the wills of both schools, defensive lineman Darrell Williams sat on the podium alongside Malzahn and Stidham and put his team’s transformation from last season into words.
“We just had a different vibe,” he said. “… We just came together and said we won’t let that happen again.”
It was only one game, but it could be the start Auburn needed in order to be taken seriously as a playoff contender. The SEC is crowded and the schedule is brutal, with road games at Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama, but finding a way against a very good Washington team is a good start.
From the defense that hit a lull during the middle of the game to Stidham’s struggles at finding a rhythm throwing the football to the running game’s missteps, they weren’t A-plus efforts throughout but they were A-plus results when it mattered most in the fourth quarter when they were trailing and staring down a 0-1 start to the season.
Everyone, on both sides of the ball, showed up on those final possessions.
“Sometimes it’s how you win a game that can help you later in the season,” Malzahn said in what he hoped would be a bit of foreshadowing.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey were positively giddy on the field post-game, smiling and laughing like school children. It was hard to make out exactly what was said, but when Lindsey shot his right hand forward in a straight-forward motion, you knew he was describing the way freshman running back JaTarvious Whitlow shot up the middle on third-and-7 in the fourth quarter to score the go-ahead touchdown.
It was a gutsy call and near-perfect execution.
“It was a super call,” Malzahn said of running against the zone, his eyes wide with excitement.
That run and the defense’s harassment of Washington quarterback Jake Browning, sacking him a fifth and final time to end the game, that put an exclamation point on things for the Tigers.
Martin said he told his teammates after they’d fallen down midway through the fourth quarter that “Something special was about to happen.”
Surrounded by reporters in the aftermath of that something special, he was all smiles, calling his running mate Whitlow “a baller.”
The nasty taste in their mouths was gone.
The troubling memories here were vanquished.
Auburn took the scene of its worst losses last season and turned it into the place that may be the launching pad to a special season.
“Finish! Finish! Finish!”
That’s what they failed to do last go ’round, he said.
“But that’s what we’re going to bring this year.”