Everything seemed to be setting up perfectly for an SEC championship game battle for the ages between an undefeated Alabama, led by Nick Saban, and an undefeated Georgia, led by Saban protégé Kirby Smart.
But a rivalry game got in the way, and typical November college football got in the way. Suddenly, the SEC got a lot more fun before December.
No. 10 Auburn routed No. 1 Georgia 40-17 on Saturday afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium, handing the Bulldogs their first loss of the season. Despite blowing a lead in a loss at LSU last month, Auburn finds itself right in the thick of the SEC race, as the Nov. 25 Iron Bowl vs. Alabama will decide the West Division championship and set up an SEC title showdown with Georgia, which has already locked up the East.
Georgia had run through the season unblemished, edging Notre Dame on the road and dominating everybody else in Smart's second season. On Saturday, however, the team's worst preseason fears came true: What had been an improved offensive line struggled to get any push against Auburn's excellent defense, resulting in neither Nick Chubb nor Sony Michel reaching even 30 rushing yards. With the running game going nowhere, freshman QB Jake Fromm was put in a brutal situation and completed only 13 of 28 passes as the Bulldogs spent much of the day trying to play from behind.
Making matters worse, a stingy Georgia defense broke down and gave up big plays, as the Bulldogs were outgained 488-230 and averaged 3.2 fewer yards per play than the Tigers, who got four total TDs from QB Jarrett Stidham and 233 yards from scrimmage from RB Kerryon Johnson.
"Come on and join our convoy- CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 11, 2017
Ain't nothin' gonna get in our way" pic.twitter.com/jy3OOFQgaG
Georgia actually scored first by going 70 yards on its first drive, which ended with a one-yard Chubb touchdown run. The Bulldogs hung around because they held Auburn to field goals -- Daniel Carlson hit three to put Auburn ahead 9-7 early in the second quarter -- but the Tigers broke the game open late in the first half. After Georgia's third straight three-and-out, Auburn quickly had to punt. However, Georgia was called for a leaping penalty on the punt, giving Auburn a first down.
Three plays later, quarterback Jarrett Stidham launched a long ball for Darius Slayton, who made a phenomenal catch around the goal line and scored a 42-yard touchdown.
Darius Slayton, this is a ridiculous catch. pic.twitter.com/rxbEK1ltk9- CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 11, 2017
The game spun further out of control for Georgia on another Auburn punt early in the second half, as Mecole Hardman fumbled and Auburn recovered at the Georgia 23-yard line. Stidham ran it in a few plays later to put the Tigers ahead by 16.
Fromm has been efficient this season, but he hasn't been put in situations like Saturday: a steep deficit against a great defense on the road in a rivalry game. Auburn defenders like Jeff Holland and Derrick Brown dominated the line of scrimmage, and Georgia couldn't sustain a drive until garbage time, when it added a touchdown with only a couple minutes left.
The final result is a huge statement for the Gus Malzahn era at Auburn, as the Tigers had scored a total of 27 points in three straight losses in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry after pulling off the Prayer at Jordan-Hare miracle win in 2013. Now, Auburn is back in the top 10 and is an SEC contender after spoiling the undefeated dreams of the Bulldogs in a 23-point rout.
For Georgia, the loss is a deflating blowout that can't help but put a damper on playoff and national championship hopes. But make no mistake: Georgia is still a contender. If it wins out against Kentucky, Georgia Tech and either Alabama or Auburn in Atlanta, it will go to the playoff.
For much of this season, however, the SEC has revolved around the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide and how far they had separated themselves from the rest of the conference. Auburn hoped to have something to say about it.
What happens in the Iron Bowl remains to be seen, but the Tigers ensured on Saturday that the SEC -- and perhaps a playoff bid -- will go down to the wire as a three-team race.