Kirby Smart is still seeking his first road win against SEC West Division teams and Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium against the host Auburn Tigers would be the ideal venue for Smart to leap over that hurdle.
Smart’s Bulldogs were pummeled at Ole Miss 45-14 in his first year at the UGA helm in 2016, were whacked at Auburn 40-17 in 2017 when Georgia was ranked No. 1 in the land entering the game and then were jolted 36-16 last season by LSU at Tiger Stadium. Of course, after the 2017 loss to Auburn on the plains, all UGA fans know the Bulldogs then got sweet revenge by belting the Tigers 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
But as you can see, none of those three Georgia defeats at West stadiums were close football games. The Bulldogs simply dug themselves into early holes in Oxford, Miss., Auburn, Ala. and Baton Rouge, La. and couldn’t climb out en route to sound whippings administered by the home teams.
And the way Kirby Smart has elevated the Georgia program into the elite ranks of college football these past four seasons, those one-sided losses were pretty inexplicable … very difficult to put a finger on.
Now, come this weekend, Smart takes another highly-ranked Bulldog team — one that holds down the No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff poll and the No. 5 ranking in both the AP and Coaches’ polls — into West territory for a huge skirmish with ancient rival Auburn.
And a lot goes on the line at 3:30 Saturday when the ball is kicked off at Jordan-Hare. A win over the 12th-ranked Tigers will clinch the Bulldogs a third consecutive SEC East Division crown and send Georgia back to the Dec. 7 SEC title game, against likely West Division champion LSU.
You have to feel good about the Bulldog defense slowing down the Auburn offensive attack somewhat because this defensive unit ranks No. 1 in the SEC in all categories as well as being the nation’s No. 2 defense against scoring … giving up just 10.1 points per outing.
It’s on the other side of the ball where the Bulldawg Nation is a little uneasy. Georgia presently ranks 4th in the Southeastern Conference in rushing with an average of 216 yards per game (Auburn is 2nd at 219), but Jake Fromm and the Bulldog passing game has been a bit spotty in recent outings. Fromm threw three interceptions in the bitter loss to South Carolina, passed for only 35 yards in the poor playing conditions of the Kentucky game, came back with an outstanding 279-yard performance to lead Georgia over Florida, but then was less than 50 percent on his completions while missing several wide-open targets in the 27-0 win over Missouri last weekend.
And with the Bulldogs’ passing attack inconsistent at best, you may have noticed this offense hasn’t scored 30 points since the 43-14 romp at Tennessee on Oct. 5. There were the 17 points scored in the two overtime loss to the Gamecocks, the 21 points put up in the monsoon Kentucky game, 24 in the 24-17 win over the Gators and then the 27 in the blanking of the Missouri Tigers.
What I’m leading up to with this is the Bulldogs simply can’t replicate another spotty offensive showing against a rugged Auburn defensive front on the plains on Saturday … not with All-America candidates Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson anchoring the Tiger defensive front. Those are two guys who have proved unblockable at times as evidenced by each being named SEC Defensive Players of the Week no less than three times this fall.
Nope, for Georgia to move the ball consistently and put up points on the defense they will encounter Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs will have to be razor-sharp with their execution and balance the attack with a powerful run game and pin-point passing by Fromm to the Georgia wideouts.
Since all but being run out of Jordan-Hare Stadium by Auburn in that 2017 regular-season matchup, the Bulldogs have had their way with the Tigers in the last two confrontations. There was, as mentioned, the 28-7 spanking of Auburn in the 2017 SEC championship tilt and then, the 27-10 romp over the Tigers last year at Sanford Stadium when the Bulldogs bullied Auburn’s defensive front for 303 yards and D’Andre Swift ran for a career-high 186 yards.
In contrast to those two games, I’m expecting this 2019 meeting to be a much closer affair. With both the Bulldogs and Tigers thriving on their sticky defensive units, this looks to be a rather low-scoring ballgame. With Georgia having the big edge in All-America place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, I see both teams getting two touchdowns each and Hot Rod’s two field goals spelling the difference in a 20-14 Bulldog win as the Dawgs clinch the SEC East once again.