A few years ago, no one would have asked how much the 2018 Peach Bowl should matter to Auburn.
It’s a New Year’s Six game! It’s against an undefeated opponent! It’s a chance to get to 11 wins! It’s a bowl game, damn it. Maybe it doesn’t count in the SEC standings, maybe the “momentum going into the offseason” concept is overrated, but it’s still an opportunity to earn a special victory in a special venue on a special day.
When any bowl win can send fans and team alike into the offseason with a smile on their collective face — remember how nice the Birmingham Bowl victory felt, despite being the Birmingham Bowl? — a New Year’s Day triumph over UCF would tie the most positive bow possible on Gus Malzahn’s re-breakthrough season.
But for all that, it’s not a few years ago. It’s December 2017, when for good or ill college football players have dispensed with the illusion that they don’t have one eye (or both) on the NFL draft; when no amount of pageantry can hide the lack of legitimate championship stakes; when the emotional contrast to Auburn’s last visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium couldn’t be more stark.
Detractors often refer to bowls as “meaningless exhibitions,” and that’s not what the Peach Bowl will be. But after facing Georgia, Alabama and Georgia again with a College Football Playoff berth at stake, we can’t pretend a lose-lose matchup* with UCF has the same meaning for Auburn football as its marquee regular-season games, either.
So the advice here for Auburn fans: Yes, root for a win. Root like hell. But buy a ticket or turn on your TV not for the victory, but because this is the final chance to watch this memorable team, these memorable players as Auburn Tigers. Let’s name names:
Kerryon Johnson. For Auburn fans, that Johnson is expected to play makes the Peach Bowl appointment viewing all on its own. Yes, Johnson could still return for his senior year — that might even be likely — but a running back who’s already logged 445 carries over the last two seasons, overcome multiple injuries, and shown NFL scouts enough to become a third- or fourth-round selection has to consider making the leap. (That goes double considering the strong possibility that another Kamryn Pettway injury and Malzahn’s reluctance to rotate ball carriers could see Johnson add 300 more carries to his legs in 2018.)
Whether the Peach Bowl proves to be @AyeyoKEJO‘s final game in an Auburn uniform, that it might be is all the motivation anyone in orange-and-blue should need to tune in.
My man caught the ball…turned with the ball…reached the ball out..what else he gotta do drive to Chick-fil-A and get a cookies and cream milkshake?
— Kerryon Johnson (@AyeyoKEJO) December 18, 2017
Daniel Carlson. Forever the Lou Groza Award winner of our hearts. If Auburn’s up big late, the offense should stop on the UCF 49 and let Legatron have a shot at an NCAA-record** 66-yard field goal. I’m not kidding (much).
Carlton Davis. The most physical, most badass cornerback at Auburn since Carlos Rogers, Davis has been projected as high as the late first round of next year’s draft. College football players who have been projected as high as the late first round of next year’s draft should not remain in school. There’s very likely four more quarters of Davis’ unique brand of lockdown coverage remaining in his Tigers career.
Braden Smith, Austin Golson, Darius James, Casey Dunn. Offensive linemen are underappreciated by the nature of the job, but that just means Auburn fans should make even more effort to appreciate the Tigers’ four senior starting linemen in their final appearance. Smith’s road-grader blocks, in particular, should be savored one last time before one of Auburn’s all-time great linemen moves on to the NFL.
Tray Matthews, Deshaun Davis. The haters will never win, Part 1:
They once labeled me a thug.. mmm🤔 (2)degrees later ! Mama we made it!!!!
— TriggaTray (@Trigga_Tray28) December 16, 2017
The haters will never win, Part 2:
At the age of 12, I was kicked out of school … My teacher at the time literally looked my mother in her face and told her “You did a terrible job raising your son, he’d be dead or in jail before he can make it out of high school.” Well umm …. 🤷♂️ pic.twitter.com/4EKEW8Lte6
— ⭐️Deshaun Davis⭐ (@_Davis_Boy12) December 16, 2017
Here’s to both Auburn graduates whacking a Knights ball carrier or two for old times’ sake.
The Steele Curtain, in its entirety. There are even more defensive seniors who deserve mention in this piece as they prepare to finish their Auburn careers: Stephen Roberts, Tre Williams, Nick Ruffin. There are more defenders who could leave for the NFL draft: Jeff Holland, Dontavius Russell. Which is why if Auburn fans should have already cherished every opportunity to enjoy this special unit, they should cherish the Peach Bowl all the more. If you wish you could watch the great Dye defenses of the 1980s or the Tuberville defenses of the mid-Aughts play again, there’s good news: This season will give you one more 3 1/2-hour window to watch an Auburn defense just as good.
Because of that defense — and the offensive line, and Kerryon Johnson, and Daniel Carlson, and a host of Tigers who should return in 2018 — Auburn is a deserved favorite to win the Peach Bowl. Because it’s a bowl game in 2018, that might not mean as much as it would have in years gone by. But a victory would also mean this departing group of players would leave Auburn with a win in their final game — and that’s something to be celebrated regardless of the opponent, regardless of the stakes, regardless of what bowl games are supposed to mean these days.
*If Auburn defeats a Group of 5 team — even an unbeaten one ranked No. 9 in S&P+ and No. 16 in the Sagarin ratings — college football’s reaction will be a shrug. If Auburn loses to a Group of 5 team, college football’s reaction will not be kind.
**Not counting various 67-yarders made in the 1970s off of tees.
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