A 20-14 Auburn win at Kansas State Thursday night could have gone much differently. What if Tyler Lockett had caught a first-half pass from Jake Waters in the end zone? What if kicker Jack Cantele had made his three missed field-goal attempts? What if, what if, what if.
Those two words sort of define the Gus Malzahn era at Auburn. What if Josh Harvey-Clemons hadn’t knocked a surefire interception away from Georgia Bulldogs teammate Tray Matthews and into the waiting hands of a streaking Ricardo Louis?
What if Nick Saban decided to take a knee and go into overtime, rather than attempt the wayward 57-yard field goal that Chris Davis returned the length of the field?
Much like Kansas State on Thursday night, the only recourse Georgia, Alabama and every other naysayers has is to ask “what if?”
College football is a game of what-ifs. Rare are teams like the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers that completely dominate every opponent on their schedule. Even some of the most celebrated teams of recent memory, like the 2001 Miami Hurricanes and 2004 USC Trojans, needed a what-if moment or two to go undefeated.
Rather than calling the circumstances surrounding Auburn’s various, white-knuckled victories “what-if” scenarios, the more accurate description may be survive-and-advance.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” is a favored cliche to describe the seasons of most sports. It doesn’t quite apply to football; the college football season is more like a sprint over hot coals. Just getting through it without falling over is all that matters.
In a season-and-change, Auburn has mastered that. But the question for the Tigers going forward is how long can they sustain it?
The Auburn win at Kansas State was just one step on a veritable inferno this season, as Malzahn’s team plays arguably the toughest schedule in college football. Taking on a Thursday night road game against a perennial Big 12 contender is certainly impressive, but Auburn needs much more if it’s to return to the national championship picture.
Truth be told, K-State outplayed Auburn. It ultimately doesn’t matter since Auburn came out ahead on the scoreboard. The Tigers had a few what-ifs of their own, like Duke Williams dropping a no-doubt-about-it touchdown pass from Nick Marshall. But realistically, fortune smiled on the Tigers.
K-State rendered Auburn’s typically explosive run game ineffective. Marshall also had trouble connecting with his receivers, either having balls batted down at the line of scrimmage or by simply overthrowing his targets.
Another favored sports cliche is “you make your own luck,” and the Tigers deserve plenty of credit for stifling K-State in the red zone to force those missed field-goal attempts. In those moments, Auburn’s defense looked ready to win the grind that is the SEC schedule.
The Tigers secondary also did its job against Lockett, arguably the nation’s best wide receiver.
Malzahn once again has the necessary pieces for a championship contender. It’s now a matter of the Tigers putting them together to survive-and-advance further.