AUBURN, Ala. — The Georgia Bulldogs have punched their share of championship tickets through the years inside Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn's expense, and Saturday was no different.
Building a 21-0 lead before hanging on for a 21-14 triumph, Georgia earned its third consecutive Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title. The Bulldogs are the first Eastern team to pull a three-peat since Florida represented the division the first five years the league staged a title showcase (1992-96).
"It's special, and praise God for that," Bulldogs junior quarterback Jake Fromm said after throwing three touchdown passes and improving to 32-6 as the starter. "I think it speaks a lot for our football program, our head coach and the guys in the locker room to come in and to have done whatever it takes to get there."
The No. 5 Bulldogs became the first team to shut out Gus Malzahn's offense through the first three quarters, but then they held on for dear life. Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix threw a quick, 3-yard touchdown strike to Eli Stove to pull the No. 13 Tigers within 21-7 with 10:04 remaining in the game and then reached the end zone on a diving, 2-yard keeper to make it 21-14 with 7:03 left.
With Jordan-Hare in a frenzy, Nix converted a fourth-and-5 with an 8-yard run to Georgia's 42-yard line, but a fourth-and-2 pass to Harold Joiner from the 34 with 2:24 remaining was slightly off target, resulting in a loss of downs.
The Tigers got the ball one last time at their 27 and without any timeouts, but Nix threw incomplete three times before getting sacked by Travon Walker.
"You saw where we got the stop at the end," Bulldogs senior safety J.R. Reed said. "We're built for this."
While Georgia's players expressed their excitement about another December trip to Atlanta, fourth-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart pressed the message of getting ready for next Saturday and a visit from Texas A&M. The Bulldogs improved to 9-1 overall and 6-1 in league play, likely cementing their No. 4 position in the College Football Playoff rankings, while Auburn — which was 12th in the most recent CFP rankings — dropped to 7-3 and 4-3.
The Tigers are now 2-6 under Malzahn against both Georgia and LSU, and they will be 2-6 against Alabama if they fail to win the Iron Bowl in two weeks. Auburn, which has faced a demanding schedule this season, should get a break next Saturday against visiting Samford.
"I'm extremely proud of our guys and the fight they showed," Malzahn said. "We were down 21-0, and it didn't look good. We fought back and really had some chances."
After Anders Carlson missed a 47-yard field-goal try to cap Auburn's first drive, the Bulldogs went three-and-out on their opening possession but got a 67-yard Jake Camarda punt that was downed at the Auburn 2. The Tigers had to punt out of their own end zone, and Georgia stunned the crowd with a 51-yard touchdown pass from Fromm to freshman receiver Dominick Blaylock to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead.
"He was not the primary receiver, but he was part of the progression," Fromm said. "We did a great job of reading the coverage for him, because he could kind of do two things there. He read the coverage right, won on his man and made a great play."
Auburn drove to Georgia's 37-yard line early in the second quarter, but a fourth-and-1 trick play backfired when Boobie Whitlow was tackled for a 13-yard loss.
With 1:19 before halftime and Georgia at its 19-yard line, Auburn called a timeout following a 5-yard run by D'Andre Swift with hopes of getting the ball back. Swift then carried for 16 yards and added a 26-yard scamper to Auburn's 14 to set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Fromm to Brian Herrien.
"When they called that timeout, it made it a lot easier on me," Smart said. "It's one of those where you're playing cat and mouse. You're trying to gain another possession without giving up another possession, and we were fortunate to get a run there on the next play."
Said Fromm: "That helped us out and kind of put a little chip on our shoulder there in the moment, and it made us really want to go down there and score."
Auburn had 329 total yards for the game to 251 for Georgia, and the Tigers became the first team to top the Bulldogs in time of possession (32:17 to 27:43). Georgia was able to combat a lot of that with Camarda, who averaged 50.7 yards on 11 punts.
"Man, he hit the ball good," Smart said. "A couple of them didn't turn over, but he was hitting bombs. I hope he never has to punt 11 times in a game again, but he punted the ball well."
Camarda was arguably Georgia's MVP on Saturday, with Swift doing his share with 17 rushes for a game-high 106 yards.
The Bulldogs no longer have to hear that they can't defeat an SEC West team on the road. Georgia lost 45-14 at Ole Miss when Smart was trying to get things going his first season in 2016, and the last two years produced a 40-17 humbling at Auburn and last season's 36-16 whipping at LSU.
"The atmosphere out there was crazy, crazy," Swift said. "Auburn has a great team, but we found a way to win. It may have looked ugly, but we found a way to win."