By Jeff Shearer
ATLANTA - While the sting of watching their opponent celebrate the SEC championship will not fade quickly, neither will the satisfaction of winning the SEC Western Division in unprecedented fashion.
Twice in three weeks, Auburn beat the nation's No. 1 team, securing bragging rights over its biggest rivals and earning a trip to Atlanta.
"It was a very tough moment in LSU," he said. "We had to rally. We had to circle the wagons. These two, along with their teammates, got it done. I'm not sure very many teams could have done that.
"We had a huge emotional win against Georgia the first time, against Alabama the second time to get us here. Today we didn't get it done, but it's unbelievable what they did to get us here."
Saturday's 28-7 defeat knocked Auburn out of the College Football Playoff, but did not diminish the Tigers' achievement in reaching the conference title game.
"We went on a great run," said Matthews, who recorded a season-high eight tackles and his first career sack. "We had a lot of leadership from our quarterback right here and myself, as well as a lot our teammates.
"We were champs on the West side, but our plans and dreams were bigger than that. We wanted to win the SEC championship and go to the playoffs and of course win the natty. We faced a lot of adversity, and we overcame it. We have great leaders. We have great coaches. We're going to take this loss, learn from it, and we'll move forward and get better, and win this bowl game."
Stidham, the transfer quarterback who made good on last year's pledge to be playing in the 2017 SEC Championship Game, quickly won over his teammates and the Auburn fan base with his leadership and playmaking ability.
"I think it's something to be really proud of regardless of the outcome of tonight," Stidham said. "Losing to LSU that way and coming back and winning five straight and beating two No. 1s in three weeks and setting ourselves up for an SEC Championship, I think that's a lot to be proud of. We didn't finish it, but it's still a lot to build off of."
Auburn will learn its bowl destination Sunday, seeking win No. 11. Coming so close to claiming the conference crown will fuel the Tigers during the offseason.
"The good thing about this sport right here is you have to stay together and just keep what you're doing," running back Kam Martin said. "I believe that next year we'll be back here. I believe it in my heart. We have the right tools, the right pieces. Today, Georgia was just the better team."
Perhaps no one summarized the resolve of the 2017 Auburn Tigers than Kerryon Johnson, who refused to let shoulder and rib injuries keep him from contributing.
"We're still a really good team, we still have improvement to do," said Johnson. "A chance to win 11 games is better than we have been since I've been here. We've improved, we fought, we came up short. But nobody can take away from us what we did this year. We had every chance to give up and we didn't."
— Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) December 3, 2017
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer