AUBURN, Ala. -- The Deep South’s oldest rivalry didn’t resemble much of a rivalry Saturday night.
In fact, all you really need to know about this game is that one of the loudest cheers of the night came when the Alabama final score flashed across the scoreboard at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
That’s not counting the constant roar from the red-and-black swarm of Georgia fans, who were about the only ones left in the stadium by the time the fourth quarter began.
Georgia’s 38-0 dissection of Auburn was like a dream in a lot of ways, a bad dream if you’re of the Auburn persuasion. It could have just as easily been 58-0. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was done by the end of the third quarter, and the Bulldogs took their foot off the gas pedal after scoring touchdowns on each of their first four possessions.
It was the first shutout in this series since 1976, and Auburn is now one loss away from finishing with its first winless season in the SEC since 1980, which begs an obvious question:
Is this really the same program that won a national championship two years ago?
The same goes for No. 5 Georgia, which clinched its second consecutive trip to the SEC championship game and remained on the periphery of the national championship race.
Is this really the same team that rolled over and played dead at South Carolina back on Oct. 6 and struggled to get past Kentucky two weeks later?
“We weren’t going to let one game ruin our whole season,” Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said of the 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks. “We knew we had the talent to be a championship team. We just had to put it all together, play with more discipline and handle our business.
“It wasn’t about anybody else. It was about us.”
The Bulldogs (9-1, 7-1 SEC) are old pros at this. They faced a similar predicament a year ago after losing their first two games, but regrouped to win 10 consecutive games and play their way into the SEC championship game.
And then this season started with a glut of suspensions on defense, some underwhelming performances on defense and a familiar criticism of Georgia coach Mark Richt -- that his teams don’t consistently play to their talent level.
“People are going to say what they want to say. Coach Richt is a great leader and a great man,” Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo said. “He sets the tone, and just like last year, we knew we weren’t out of anything.”
Simply getting to Atlanta was a coup last season for the Bulldogs, but there was very little celebrating inside their locker room Saturday after clinching their second straight East title.
“It was a little different feeling,” Richt said. “Atlanta’s not the end of the road, we hope.”
On the flip side, this does look like the end of the road for Auburn coach Gene Chizik, whose Tigers have now lost nine consecutive SEC games dating back to last season.
In those nine losses, seven have been by 17 points or more, and Georgia has won the past two meetings between the schools by a combined 83-7 margin.
It’s not just that the Tigers (2-8, 0-7 SEC) are losing. They haven’t even been competitive in a lot of their games, which makes the crash from where this program was two years ago all the more stunning.
Chizik, who would be owed a $7.5 million buyout if he’s not retained, has steadfastly refused to discuss what the future might hold for him. He didn’t deviate from that approach Saturday in the grim aftermath of another embarrassing defeat.
“I don’t entertain those thoughts,” Chizik said. “Again, like I said earlier, I have really one quest. We have two games left, and our seniors have done a lot for this university. They have done a lot for this place, and I hurt for them. Certainly, they never envisioned going out with this type of season, nor did anybody else coaching-wise, either.
“But it’s their last go-around, so I have one focus for them, and that is this week in them playing their last game at home and trying to get a win.”
Chizik repeated several times Saturday that the Tigers didn’t play well in any phase of the game, but he wasn’t buying the notion that he’s lost the team.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
Whether he has or hasn’t, the Auburn program has seemingly lost its way. This league is always going to be cyclical. There are going to be peaks and valleys.
But it might be a while before we see another crash this pronounced, even in the topsy-turvy world of the SEC.