At 12:42 a.m. this past Sunday morning, I cracked open a second celebratory beer and raised it to the man whose inspired performance had made that celebration possible: T.J. Finley.
Yes, of course, Finley had little to do with Auburn’s Saturday night exorcism of 22 years’ worth of Tiger Stadium bayou voodoo. The superhero cape that evening fell on the shoulders of the man, the meme, the legend, Bo Nix, who decided to make an entire plane out of his touchdown against Texas A&M last year. You’ve watched the following a hundred times, and we all know that’s not as good as having watched it a hundred-and-one times:
What makes this play such a face-melter isn’t just the unchartable unlikelihood of its success; it’s that it comes on 4th down, deep in the second quarter, with the Tigers already down two scores in a place they haven’t won since God’s bicycle still had training wheels. If Nix doesn’t make this play, Auburn loses the damn football game.
Look how close he comes to not making it. Look how close the defenders come to turning the celebratory beers into the drowning of sorrows. Even on the 102nd viewing, it’s as close to a football miracle as Auburn’s come since the last season they had a new coach — or it would be, if the driving force behind it was good fortune, and not Bo Nix wielding his determination to not go out like that like a comic-book force field.
For all that, the Auburn quarterback I kept thinking about in Sunday’s wee hours was Finley. A week after everybody talked about him, nobody talked about him. Not without reason — he didn’t do much to beat LSU. But Finley did everything to make beating LSU the cathartic, season-defining, glass-raising triumph it deserved to be.
Thanks to Auburn’s decades-long knack for snatching death-defying victory from the jaws of humiliating defeat against Group of 5 programs*, I’m unsure Tiger fans grappled enough with what actually losing that Georgia State game would’ve meant. Yes, it would’ve meant pain and embarrassment, but it would’ve also meant a gaggle of hideous, ghostly But!‘s hanging over the team’s left shoulder every time it accomplished anything the remainder of this fall. Ended decades of frustration in Baton Rouge? OK, But! Scraped your way to a .500-or-better SEC record in Bryan Harsin’s first year? That’s nice, But! Generally appeared for the final eight games of the season to be the sort of top-25 SEC program that doesn’t do things like lose as a four-touchdown favorite at home to Georgia State? Sure, But! But but but!
It would’ve meant that winning in Death Valley would not have meant as much as it did. Two games, two quarterbacks, two Auburn victories, two halves of a whole. Together, two wins that take this season to where we as fans needed it to go. We all saw the defeat in Happy Valley, we’ve all seen Georgia’s defense, we all know what kind of Alabama team’s coming to Jordan-Hare. We know that barring Nix becoming a being of pure energy (as opposed to merely playing like one), these Tigers aren’t going to challenge for a playoff berth, aren’t going to win the SEC West, almost certainly aren’t going to win 10 games. They have — they had — to find another meaningful accomplishment for this season.
Seizing the gilded opportunity to end the losing streak at LSU surely represented the next most meaningful accomplishment possible. They accomplished it. The week before, they came cataclysmically close to sullying it. They didn’t.
From here, it’s all gravy. It’s the Tigers’ first year under a new coach, in a season where our archrivals are (by universal consensus) the best two teams in the country. I never needed much from it, just a peg of satisfaction on which to hang my Auburn fan hat. Whatever else happens, the curse of Death Valley is over. Whatever these Tigers’ final record, it won’t include the most humiliating Auburn defeat of my lifetime.
That’s a peg that feels sturdy enough. Sure, I’ll feel more optimistic about future higher-stakes seasons if Harsin puts eight wins on the board rather than six. Sure, the bottom falling out in, say, a 17-point home loss to Mississippi St. would sting. But the kind of defeat where we look back in six months or six years and feel blistering pain and regret? That’s not happening.
It should’ve happened. Auburn stood 98 yards away from the touchdown that would prevent it from happening, with only 3:13 to score it. Auburn scored it anyway.
It should’ve happened again a week later. 19-10 deficits entering the fourth quarter in Baton Rouge are deficits LSU erases, not Auburn. Auburn erased it anyway.
Nervous about Finley regressing and Nix wobbling, I suggested before the LSU game Auburn might have fallen into the dreaded zone where the old “if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any” adage applied. That was wrong. The Tigers do, in fact, have two quarterbacks. They have needed them these past two Saturdays, with their team facing a mile-long briar patch of early deficits, drop-plagued receivers, defensive injuries, etc.
Finley and Nix dragged the Tigers through to the other side. Exhausted, bloody, clothes torn and full of stickers, but here they are: in the place where everything’s going to be a-OK. Seven games remain this Auburn season. Let’s all go have some fun out there.
*Hardly an obscure bit of trivia, but worth repeating: Auburn’s last regular-season loss to a program outside the power conferences** came against Southern Miss in 1991. But I would argue that defeat, while stunning, didn’t generate the sort of embarrassment a loss to Georgia State would have in 2021; after all, Auburn had also lost to the Golden Eagles (then quarterbacked by Brett Favre and on their way to a terrific 8-4 campaign***) just the season before.
**Despite facing that do-or-die 4th-and-9 against GSU, despite needing a touchdown with 39 seconds remaining just to force overtime against Jacksonville State in 2015, despite going to OT against ULM in 2012, despite needing a do-or-die onsides kick recovery and touchdown with 30 seconds remaining against Utah State in 2011, despite needing a touchdown with 38 seconds remaining to beat Appalachian State in 1999, etc. That Auburn won not just a few but all of these games doesn’t just defy the odds, it gives the odds the double-bird and says terrible things about the odds’ mother.
***Curley Hallman’s Favre-led 1990 Southern Miss team not only beat Auburn, they also beat Alabama 27-24 in Birmingham, lost by a point at Georgia, and lost by a field goal at Mississippi State. Suffice it to say college football was in a very different, more interesting place in 1990.
Finley screenshot via the illustrious John Ringer