It’s “Saturday Night in Athens” and “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” should be another dynamic game in the long and glorious Georgia-Auburn football series when the 7 p.m. kickoff arrives between the hallowed hedges of Sanford Stadium.
As always, when the Bulldogs and Tigers collide this late in the season, there is plenty at stake. Of course, the 5th-ranked Dawgs of Kirby Smart are coming off two dominating SEC wins away from Sanford Stadium … the 36-17 smashing of the Florida Gators in Jacksonville and the 34-17 pounding of the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, the latter victory giving Georgia its second consecutive SEC East Division crown and another trip to the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1.
But before the Bulldogs face unbeaten and top-ranked Alabama in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium Georgia has to dispose of Auburn, UMass and Georgia Tech in the final three games of the regular season in Athens, that is, if the Bulldogs want to stay alive for one of the final four spots in this year’s College Football Playoffs.
And although Gus Malzahn’s now 24th-ranked Tigers have long since been eliminated from the SEC title race and any hopes they had for the post-season playoffs, Auburn has put itself in position for a solid 2018 finish by virtue of consecutive wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M. And, you can bet your bottom dollar the present 6-3 Tigers are relishing the thoughts of coming between the hedges Saturday night and derailing the 8-1 Dawgs and thereby sending Georgia’s playoff aspirations flying out into the cold night air.
Being truthful, I was a bit taken back when I saw the Bulldogs had been made a 14.5-point favorite over the Tigers/War Eagles/Plainsmen in this football game. Yes, Georgia has earned the right to be a solid pick over this up-and-down Auburn team by scoring double-digit wins over every single team the Bulldogs have faced this fall … the exception, of course, being the double-digit loss they suffered themselves in the 36-16 defeat at LSU. But in a closely-contested rival game such as this, where Georgia leads the ancient series by the narrow margin of 58-56-8, I guess I was expecting the Bulldogs to be favored from somewhere in the seven to 10-point range.
The questions swirling around Saturday night’s contest are thusly: (1) Can the Bulldogs again be motivated enough to play one of their best games of the season, after coming off back-to-back emotional wins over the Gators and Wildcats? (2) Is Auburn primed to stage its best performance of the year while riding the momentum and highs of its stirring fourth-quarter comeback victory over Texas A&M last weekend? (3) And will the memories of last season’s split between the two teams, when the Tigers mauled the Bulldogs 40-17 in the regular season matchup at Jordan-Hare and then Georgia notched revenge with the 28-7 romp over Auburn in the SEC title game, have absolutely any effect on how the two teams perform in this, their third meeting in a calendar year?
On the positive side for the Bulldogs, this Malzahn-coached Tiger team has been pretty one dimensional on offense this season. Very uncharacteristic for Auburn, the Tigers haven’t been able to run the football very well all season, averaging just 155 yards rushing per game in their nine outings to date. Passing-wise, they have averaged 222 yards through the air, led of course by Jarrett Stidham’s 1,953-yard total, with 10 TD passes and his 60.6 percent completion rate.
And you know what the Bulldogs did with a one-dimensional offense last week in the bluegrass. Kentucky was just the opposite scenario as it was a powerful rushing offense with Benny Snell but a very suspect passing team. Auburn’s leading rusher, JaTarvious Whitlow, is the only Tiger to run for more than 600 yards this season while, as you are aware, the Bulldogs have both Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift already above that mark. So one would think the Georgia defensive front will be able to shut down the Auburn run game Saturday and then sell out to stymie Stidham’s throws downfield to his two favorite targets, Ryan Davis and Georgia native Darius Slayton.
But on the other side of the ball is where things could get more sticky for the Bulldogs. While Georgia truly imposed its will (Kirby’s favorite saying) on Kentucky’s highly-ranked defense by running up and down Kroger Field for 331 yards, the Bulldogs are about to go against one of the top defensive fronts in the country. Led by 300-pound Georgia products Derrick Brown (Sugar Hill) and Dontavius Russell (Carrollton), the Tigers have surrendered only 133.9 rushing yards per game. And speaking of selling out, you know the Auburn defense will be doing exactly that to frustrate a Georgia run game that leads the SEC with its 233.78-yards average.
So what we’re looking at here folks is strength against strength when the Bulldogs have the football. Taking these statistical facts into consideration, could this be the night that Jake Fromm, and Justin Fields, really air the ball out against a Tiger secondary that has given up 222 yards per outing (yes, the same number Stidham has thrown for)?
In practice this week, the Georgia players have said all the right things. They’ve said they are aware the Auburn Tigers are coming to town with the intent of destroying the Bulldogs’ season and all their goals, as far as the college playoffs go. They’ve said there will be no letdown, no falloff from their Florida and Kentucky showings. And Smart himself said the Bulldogs are very excited to be facing old rival Auburn once again.
I’ll take their word for it. Back before a loud and proud Bulldawg Nation home crowd and with so much at stake, I too look for the Dawgs to be snapping at the leash and ready to whip the Tigers. Those 17 points Georgia has given up to the opposition the last two weekends looks good again to me in this one. So let’s make it the Bulldogs 28, the Tigers 17 as Georgia takes another step to heading for Atlanta with an 11-1 season record.