Over a three-week period last November, Auburn beat both the No. 2 and No. 1-ranked teams in the country at the time.
But, it seems there was a flaw in both the 23-point victory over Georgia and the 12-point taming of Alabama. There were qualities as yet unproven. Because those games were just too darn easy.
So, after the Tigers stumbled to the close of what was a bizarre 2017 with losses to Georgia in the SEC Championship and upstart Central Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, their coach Gus Malzahn was left wanting to see something more from his bunch. There was another message to convey with a tough opener to 2018 looming.
“We've been talking about overcoming adversity,” Malzahn said following Auburn’s 21-16 victory over Washington in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game.
“You look at last season, we didn't win hardly any, if any, close games. And we knew this was going to be a close game. We knew it would come down to the end. We were talking about that, and leaders like Darrell (linebacker Williams) and Jarrett (quarterback Stidham), they seized the moment. Even when it didn't look super at times, they just kept believing and just willed us to win, and found a way to win.”
So, a victory that was nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing as those huge ones from a season ago could actually be more attractive? Grim and desperate can look better than unquestioned and efficient? That’s how it plays in Malzahn’s world right now. You adjust the message to fit the moment.
For there was certainly nothing easy about Saturday. To win this one, Auburn had no choice but to win the turnover battle (2-0). It had to drive 76 yards in the fourth quarter – converting one third-and-nine play on its own end of the field and scoring on a bullish 10-yard run at Washington’s end. It had to dig its heels into the faux turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and make a defensive stand (back-to-back sacks on third and fourth down qualifies).
There were a dozen ways the Tigers could have lost this one – how about that weird failed two-point conversion following their first touchdown? But if in the end Auburn has indeed added a layer of resilience to the obvious talent it possesses, then Saturday was a most meaningful kind of experience.
If this game actually began to fill a reservoir of resourcefulness that the Tigers can draw on later, then it was certainly worth playing a quality opponent while so many others were shadowboxing in Week One.
Of course, that is what anyone on this side of Puget Sound wants to know after Saturday – what might this mean when Auburn plays the likes of Georgia and Alabama. You know, games that really matter to the football intelligentsia of the southeast.
Washington will be OK. Even for a Pac-12 team, it can climb right back into a playoff position when it goes back to its side of the country. Here, we’ll even pay the Huskies the ultimate compliment: They looked like they momentarily belonged in the SEC.
As for Auburn, it is anxious to get back to this palace off Northside Drive – as soon as the next SEC Championship Game, to be exact. Having lost here twice to end last season, the Tigers left Saturday feeling so much more comfortable in Arthur’s House.
“Everybody came in and was focused,” Williams said. “It was just different (than last year). Everybody had a goal and we all came together and achieved it. We just all came together and said we won’t let (losing in Atlanta) happen again.”
“Darrell is right. I was actually telling Coach Malzahn this during pregame – it just felt different this time,” Stidham said. “For whatever reason. I think with this team, the chemistry is unreal. We’re all so close. I think at the end of the day, we just want to win for each other, and we want to win for these coaches.”
Those are the vague, intangible benefits Auburn took away from its little visit to Atlanta and one difficult game. The kind of benefits that sometimes grow hair and get very real in seasons that turn special.