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Auburn 40, Georgia 17: Stumbling versus falling.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s one thing to lose. It’s something else entirely to run headlong into the wall on the backstretch and keep smoking the tires until the engine overheats. That’s exactly what Georgia did in a disappointing effort at Auburn tonight, losing 40-17 to their oldest rival.

This wasn’t a young player taking his helmet off at the wrong time. It wasn’t an inexperienced quarterback going wide-eyed in the face of the Alabama defense. This was the alleged senior leaders of the #1 ranked football team in the country shooting themselves in the foot until they heard the click.

The roll of ignominy: Sony Michel. Malkom Parrish. D’Andre Walker. These are the veteran players you are supposed to be able to count on to keep your team level-headed in a hostile road environment. Instead each committed a killer penalty. The usually reliable Mecole Hardman whiffed on a punt to set Auburn up for an easy touchdown. Riley Ridley, who’s made his share of clutch grabs, dropped a wide open touchdown pass. Rodrigo Blankenship missed a field goal before the half that could have swung momentum back to the Red and Black. Cam Nizialek shanked a punt for literally the first time in his Bulldog career.

Reserve defenders shoving after the play. Starting defenders arguing with each other on the sideline between series. An offense that couldn’t do much after the first series other than get pushed backwards for three minutes then high five the defense on their way back to the sideline. Georgia lost this football game when they inexplicably never got off the bus.

Give credit to the Auburn Tigers, who did what the Classic City Canines had themselves done all season: capitalize on their opponent’s repeated bone-headed mistakes. The Tigers won the battle up front, never allowing the UGA rushing attack to get going and themselves moving the ball seemingly at will by the second half. Georgia got to Jarrett Stidham early, and I frankly wondered if he’d even make it to halftime. But soon enough Auburn’s misdirection and Stidham’s cool under pressure conspired to wear down the Bulldog pass rush.

Auburn’s victory on the stat sheet was total. 488 yards of offense to Georgia’s 230. The Tigers tallied 25 first downs to Georgia’s 13. Nick Chubb led all Georgia rushers with a grand total of 27 yards rushing on 11 attempts. Kerryon Johnson became the first back to break the century mark against the Bulldogs this season, churning out 167 yards on 32 carries.

Yes, the Bulldog offensive front was whipped for the first time this season, and in the process did Jake Fromm no favors. Fromm began the game 3 for 3 passing but finished 13 of 28 for 184 yards. It might have helped if Ridley doesn’t drop a 71 yard touchdown pass. Or if the line kept the Auburn front off Fromm for him to spot a wide open Mecole Hardman on a flea flicker. None of that happened on this night.

Auburn deserves a ton of credit for playing a truly complete football game, giving life to my fear expressed before the game that the Plainsmen are peaking at the right time. But I’ll say this: Kirby Smart will remind his 2018 team about the challenge Malzahn called for on that fourth quarter spot. He’ll remind them about the Auburn PA playing Soulja Boy in the waning moments in an act of good sportsmanship one would expect from an Auburn man. Those were possibly the biggest mistakes Auburn made all night. They’re the ones no one in red and black will forget.

Georgia’s goals for 2017 are still largely in front of the team. The Bulldogs are still going to Atlanta. They’ll likely meet either a top 3 Auburn team in a rematch or a top-ranked Alabama. Beat Kentucky and Tech and that game is very likely for a shot at the college football playoff. Does that require some chaos elsewhere in the college football universe? Sure. But chaos is the only constant in college football. That part will take care of itself. Georgia has to do a better job taking care of what it can control starting next week against the Wildcats.

Lose in Atlanta despite taking care of business against the ‘Cats and on the Flats, and you’re an 11-2 SEC runner up as opposed to a 12-1 SEC runner up. In the broad sweep of history that’s not a significant difference.

It’s hard to hear it now, but this game was very instructive for Kirby Smart & Co. They played tight, they were keyed up from the word go. They weren’t in the state of “relaxed preparation” that Nick Saban loves to talk about. At the end of the day the Red and Black are still a 9-1 team despite playing 15 true freshmen and having 16 freshmen or sophomores in the two deep. There are lessons to be learned here.

This particular egg-laying demonstrates that Kirby Smart doesn’t have this team where he wants it or where Georgia fans expect it to be. But I dare say it’s still ahead of schedule. Back in August how many weeks this season did you expect Georgia to hold the #1 ranking in the country? If you say more than zero I flatly don’t believe you.

I think they’ll get back there. There’s a difference between stumbling on your way up the mountain and falling off the side of the thing on your way down. This was the former. Alabama in Athens in 2015? That was the latter. I’ll take this loss over that one every day of the week.

That isn’t much comfort tonight. But there are going to be other better nights in the very near future. For now, let’s dab the cuts, wash off the mud, and get ready to take this one out on the Kentucky Wildcats. As always . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!!!