Come Saturday – dating back to December – Auburn will have played as many football games of consequence inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium as have the Falcons.
(Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to include bowl games as “consequential,” but I’m trying to make a sterling point here. That is: Auburn is all but an official partner of the new place, so somebody hurry up and give Gus Malzahn a S-Class sedan. The man always looks like he needs cheering up).
For the third time in nine months, the Tigers will appear Saturday inside Arthur Blank’s pleasure palace. The prior two visits resulted in a stunning reversal against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, and a rather indifferent outing against Central Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Favored in both – if just barely against the Bulldogs – Auburn won neither.
Now, like some blues singer who just can’t stay away from whiskey and questionable women, the Tigers go right back to their old haunt, expecting a different result. They play the most important game of the first week of college football, the only match-up of Top-10 ranked teams, in one of those neutral site indulgences Atlanta is so skilled at hosting.
That the opponent is Washington – “A popular pick to be in the final four, and I think it’s well deserved when you look at them,” praised Tigers coach Malzahn – makes this Chick-fil-A Kickoff game even more exotic. Any time a SEC team plays someone from the other side of the kudzu curtain, it’s news. Any time a team of promise opens the season with a test more difficult than an eye chart, it’s cause for celebration.
Here we have exactly the type of game college football at large – and the SEC specifically – needs more of. Here is the kind of game that breaks with the tradition of scheduling out-of-conference cupcakes as well as breaking with the provincialism that rules the SEC.
At places like Georgia and Clemson, they’ll have virtual keggers this opening weekend. Auburn, meanwhile, has got itself a grim contest, and its fans are the better for that.
Auburn-Washington is loaded with talent, starting at the glamour position. Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham and Washington quarterback Jake Browning are on all your big-time watch lists. Having met Browning at one of those elite passing camps, Stidham is a big fan. “I would hang out him every single day if we went to the same school,” Stidham said. But he’ll have to somehow contain himself on the opposite sideline Saturday.
The Tigers fancy themselves as having one of the best defensive lines in the country – a la those other Tigers in Clemson. They will be auditioning for a new star running back. “Well, we had nine (1,000-yard rushers) in a row. I like our chances,” Malzahn said.
The Huskies, in turn, have a proven runner (Myles Gaskin, 4,073 yards rushing his first three seasons), and a couple preseason All-America candidates in the secondary to challenge Stidham.
Then there is the great anthropological study this game represents, a chance to inspect up close the social customs of a strange tribe from some far corner of the country. A place that dares not revere college football as in the SEC, Washington coach Chris Petersen admitted.
“I think football’s very important in the South, and part of the culture,” Petersen said.
“Even in Seattle, there’s some people here that don’t even know we have a football team,” he said, reportedly with a smile and a shrug.
But don’t be fooled. He is not one to be cowed by location. Petersen was the Boise State coach who brought the Broncos to Atlanta and laid a two-touchdown beating on Georgia to begin the 2011 season.
Having won a SEC Championship in Atlanta in 2013, the Tigers have been sorely troubled by the same location more recently. That’s another thing that differentiates them from their bitter rival in Tuscaloosa. Alabama wins in our town more than a Coca-Cola lobbyist.
This third straight game in Atlanta, the coach reminds us, is scarcely connected to the prior two.
“Sure, fans think about (the Atlanta troubles). From a player/coach standpoint, it’s a new year. I don’t get caught up too much in all that. Every game is big. It’s a new year,” Malzahn said.
And the quarterback, who may still be cleaning himself off after taking six sacks against UCF, says he has turned the page.
“Obviously we didn’t have too much luck there the last two times. At the end of the day we just didn’t play well in either of those two games,” Stidham said. “This time around we’re looking to play really well and get a win against a top team.”
It’s hardly like Auburn can vow never again to make that short drive up I-85. Not so long as the city upholds its reputation as college football’s Xanadu.
“Obviously, we like playing there – that’s where they play the SEC Championship,” Malzahn reminded all. Whatever happens Saturday, the Tigers will not hesitate to return to Mercedes-Benz as soon as possible. Atlanta’s the catnip they just can’t resist.