During the summer, Auburn High head coach Adam Winegarden and his players worked relentlessly while holding out hope they could even have a season during a fall unlike any other.
Their dream of suiting up under the Friday night lights not only came true, but it now has a chance to end with a championship.
Auburn (12-1, 5-1) will play in a state title game for the second time in program history tonight when the Tigers take on Thompson (13-0, 7-0) for the Class 7A championship in Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. The matchup serves as a chance for Auburn to take down one of Alabama’s top programs, as the Warriors are the defending state champions and will be playing in the title game for the third straight year.
The Tigers reached Bryant-Denny by way of a beatdown of one of their biggest rivals.
Auburn eked out a victory against Central-Phenix City during the regular season, but the second time around the Tigers were simply dominant. Quarterback Matthew Caldwell threw for 160 yards and one touchdown, the Tigers’ defense kept the Red Devils on their heels and running back JT Rogers put the game out of reach with a late 60-yard touchdown to seal the Tigers’ 35-17 semifinals victory.
The old adage is that teams want to be playing their best at the end of the season. As far as Winegarden is concerned, his Tigers made that happen against the Red Devils.
“I thought it was one of our more consistent efforts of the year in all three phases,” Winegarden said. “I think it's helpful that we're finally playing multiple games in a row. You know, the back half of the year we had three games where we had to wait two weeks to play. I think that makes it difficult for your team to be consistent and improve. Getting into the playoffs and playing multiple games in a row I think helps.”
Winegarden’s Tigers have been knocking at the Super 7 door over the past few years before finally breaking through this time around. In the sixth-year head coach’s opinion, this year’s team was different in the relationships they’ve built among themselves along with their collective competitive spirit. Their competition has been a constant at practice, and their will to win even during drills has carried over into a fall that few involved will forget.
Auburn’s emergence has occurred thanks to several Tigers players taking their game to the next level.
Senior quarterback Matthew Caldwell showed flashes in his debut for Auburn in 2019, but this fall he’s shown a calm demeanor behind center along with a propensity to make a big play with the game up for grabs. He’s found himself surrounded by difference makers on offense, from Rogers and fellow running back Amaury Hutchinson, a deep receiving corps headlined by Bryson Clague and a stout offensive line that suffered a huge blow in losing David Hixon this summer before center Cort Bradley and the rest of the group settled in.
Defense has always been Auburn’s calling card under Winegarden, and 2020 has been no different. The Tigers’ defensive front has been ferocious this fall thanks to Cameron Reese, Powell Gordon, Lee Gregg and company, and the defenders behind them have excelled as well. Auburn’s secondary in particular has played lights out, as the defensive backs have delivered more often than not when the ball was thrown their way.
Gordon credited the Tigers’ defensive backs as a key to a defense that has racked up 39 sacks after playing 11 games.
“The secondary can play a really big part with what we do because the longer they have them covered up, the more the quarterback will hesitate. That's really where we get a lot of sacks because of the secondary,” Gordon said. “They play a really big part in the defense. It's one of the best secondaries in the state.”
There’s also Auburn’s excellent special teamers. Senior punter Matthew Rhodes has had a phenomenal season by averaging 41 yards per punt and planting 13 punts inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, while junior kicker Josh Owsley has been productive and hit 40 of his 43 extra-point attempts and six of his nine field-goal tries.
The special teamers, the secondary and the rest of Auburn’s team will have to bring their A-game tonight in order to leave the Warriors with their first loss in 17 games.
Winegarden praised the Warriors, noting they’ve won every game this fall by at least 12 points and have dominated in doing so. He spoke highly of an offense that includes junior quarterback Conner Harrell, who has thrown for 3,405 yards with 40 touchdowns and just three interceptions; senior running back Jarrett Crockett, who has surpassed 1,000 rushing yards; and senior J.B. Mitchell III, who has 1,163 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns this year.
On the other side, the Warriors boast playmakers such as five-star junior defensive end Jeremiah Alexander, junior middle linebacker Jax Van Zandt and sophomore cornerback Tony Mitchell.
The message from Winegarden and some of his star players has all been the same regarding tonight’s game. The Tigers don’t have to reinvent what they do to take down Thompson; instead, it’s about perfecting it.
The margin of error will be incredibly small, but the chance to call themselves state champions has been what Auburn has been working for since last season ended.
In Winegarden’s time as head coach, Auburn has reemerged as a contender in the state’s highest classification but lacked the hardware to show for it. The Tigers snagged a sweet semifinals trophy two weeks ago; now, they want a bigger one to add to the case.
“At the beginning of the year, this team talked about how they wanted to leave a legacy as a class. For them, I think that would be a real fitting way to finish it,” Winegarden said.
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