By beating Ole Miss and Texas A&M, Auburn (6-3) changed the trajectory of its season.
Before the game in Oxford, onlookers heard not-so-quiet whispers that Gus Malzahn’s $32 million buyout could be considered with a loss.
Auburn avoided that calamity. Then, with a late offensive outburst against the Aggies on Saturday, Auburn secured bowl eligibility.
The Tigers can finish 8-5 even without beating Georgia or Alabama, provided it beats Liberty and wins its bowl game. That’s not ideal for a preseason Associated Press Top 10 team, but would represent a modest surprise to some after the 4-3 start.
If Auburn can find a way to upset the Bulldogs or Tide on the road, it should re-emerge as a Top 25 team. The season would remain a disappointment, but only a slight one.
How likely is that?
Auburn beat both teams in 2017, although those games took place in Jordan-Hare Stadium with a better offensive line. Kerryon Johnson touched the ball 67 times in those two games for 358 yards.
The Tigers do not have a running back or an offensive line that will generate those numbers against Georgia and Alabama this year.
Georgia is a 14.5-point favorite at most sportsbooks as of Tuesday morning, According to the spread-to-moneyline converter available at SBR Forum, that represents implied odds for an Auburn win of about 13.2 percent.
S&P+ projects Georgia to win by 13, while my handicapping projects a true line of Georgia -12.5. So perhaps Auburn’s chances are in the 15 to 20 percent range to win that game.
But while it took Auburn about 54 minutes of game time before it finally exploited holes in the Texas A&M secondary, Georgia’s pass defense is fifth in the country, according to S&P+. Bleacher Report and Pro Football Focus are among those projecting UGA cornerback Deandre Baker as a top 5 NFL draft pick.
Georgia’s defensive issue is its run defense, which isn’t convenient for Auburn. Plus, the Tigers should have trouble keeping up on the scoreboard.
Georgia’s offense has scored at least 34 points in all but one SEC game this season. Auburn has scored 34 points only once against SEC competition, hitting the number exactly against Arkansas (2-7) thanks to a non-offensive touchdown.
The odds of an Auburn victory in Athens are not great. But what about the Iron Bowl?
For all his flaws, Malzahn is 2-3 against Nick Saban and Alabama. That’s a losing record. But since 2011, only two teams have beaten Saban twice: Auburn and Ole Miss. And the Rebels landed on NCAA probation in the process.
As of now, Alabama will be about a three-touchdown favorite against Auburn. South Point released a Games of the Year line in May, and favored Alabama by one touchdown. So the line has moved about 14 points since the preseason, which is remarkable.
Implied odds of a victory against No. 1 Alabama – which, by the way, will be out for revenge for last year’s 26-14 demolition – are about 10 percent. But that sure feels generous.
Jarrett Stidham needs to have the game of his life, Auburn needs a significant advantage in turnover margin and Alabama’s special teams need to melt down.
Even with the most generous implied odds (20 percent against Georgia, 10 percent against Alabama), Auburn has a 28 percent chance of winning at least one of those games.
It’s pretty unlikely that Auburn pulls off either upset. But beating Georgia especially is not impossible.
The season sure would look different if Auburn’s 1-in-5 chance comes through Saturday.
Christopher Smith is a professional handicapper. He’s the founder of Sports Locksmith and also works full-time for MyBookie out of Costa Rica.