The renewal of the Deep South’s oldest football rivalry takes place Saturday at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium and, yes indeed, the stakes are sky high for both the Georgia Bulldogs and Auburn Tigers.
Kirby Smart’s team, of course, surges into the 3:30 p.m. contest at 9-0 and is ranked No. 1 in all the land in the College Football Playoff rankings. Georgia has already locked up the East Division title and a spot in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2 in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A win over the Tigers would springboard the Bulldogs toward a 12-0 regular-season finish and, just maybe, a berth in the four-team college playoffs.
And although Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team has fallen twice this season, to defending national champion Clemson and LSU, the 7-2 Tigers are still holding a No. 10 national ranking in the CFP and, likewise, have plenty to play for on Saturday. Wins over Georgia and state rival Alabama would likely propel the War Eagles to the SEC West crown and also give the Tigers an outside shot of crashing the playoffs.
In many ways, this game, with everything on the line like it is, reminds me of the gigantic 1971 clash of Georgia and Auburn in Athens. That November day between the hedges, both the Bulldogs and Tigers rolled in undefeated with Auburn holding a No. 6 national ranking and Georgia right behind in the No. 7 slot. I recall that Georgia-Auburn ticket was one of the most difficult ever to obtain and for scalpers up on the bridge, Christmas came early for them that day. Up in the press box, things were also packed to capacity as media from all over the country descended on Sanford Stadium. I remember a New York Times reporter sitting just a few seats down from my spot.
And the game certainly matched the week’s buildup preceding it. It was back and forth for most of the contest but after the Bulldogs, led by sophomore quarterback Andy Johnson and sophomore tailback Jimmy Poulos, fought back to within 21-20 of the Tigers, eventual Heisman winning quarterback, Pat Sullivan, and his All-America receiver Terry Beasley took control for the Tigers. The Georgia defense couldn’t halt this lethal passing combo down the stretch and Auburn left the stadium still unbeaten with a 35-20 whipping of Dooley’s Dogs, as Sullivan passed for 248 yards and four touchdowns.
But, in the end, the Bulldogs would finish higher than those Tigers in the national rankings. The Auburn loss would be Georgia’s only defeat that season en route to an 11-1 record, which included a thrilling last- second win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta and then a 7-3 triumph over North Carolina in the Gator Bowl, the Tar Heels being coached by Vince’s brother, Bill Dooley. Auburn, meantime, would go on to lose to both Alabama in the Iron Bowl skirmish and then to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
So, this time, while only the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s battle sporting an undefeated mark, it’s still a confrontation featuring two top 10-ranked teams with all kind of future ramifications swirling around the Loveliest Village on the Plains.
That said, this is a very difficult football game to predict. Both the Dawgs and Tigers have tremendous run defenses and offensively, they also boast powerful running games as well as aerial attacks that can also cause plenty of damage.
Georgia’s defense has been simply superb in the nine outings to date and I’m thinking that Bulldogs’ stop-em gang will spell the difference at Jordan-Hare come early Saturday evening. For Georgia to win, of course, the Bulldogs’ O-line will have to be able to move Auburn’s strong and quick defensive front which will provide the Georgia offense with the ability to unleash its Chubb, Michel and Swift-led running game on the Tigers. And it’s imperative also that freshman QB Jake Fromm has a pinpoint passing day — when he does throw the ball — to prevent Auburn from stacking the box to stymie the Georgia ground attack.
Explosive as the Tigers are on offense and even as good as this Bulldog defense is, I would be stunned if Georgia holds Auburn to less than 17, 20 points on Saturday. And I would likewise be surprised if the Tiger defense checks the Bulldogs to below 21 points. But I can’t see this game being a high-scoring affair, up in the 30’s or 40s.
So I’m calling it 24-21, Georgia! Time for Rodrigo Blankenship, who’s had a fabulous season thus far, to provide the Bulldogs’ margin of victory with a winning field goal, just as he did in the 20-19 thriller at Notre Dame.
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