ATHENS – It’s the question everybody wants to ask but one for which there is no easy answer. Which team should Georgia want to meet in the SEC Championship Game: Alabama or Auburn?
The Bulldogs have been sitting as SEC East champions officially since Nov. 4 and unofficially for weeks before that. It didn’t take very long into this season to realize that the Bulldogs were going to be the class of its side of the conference.
Meanwhile, Alabama has been favored to win the West. Awhile back, there might’ve been a few folks who already had the Crimson Tide written down in big, bold Sharpie considering the way their season was going and how everybody else on that side of the conference was doing.
Certainly, nobody was talking about Auburn. If the Tigers weren’t written off after an 11-sack debacle to Clemson in Week 2, they were by the time they blew a late lead to LSU on Oct. 14.
But then Georgia-Auburn happened on Nov. 11 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the mighty Tide incurred a few key injuries to suddenly look of-this-world. Now, everybody’s wondering just which one of the teams from the next state over will end up in Atlanta on Dec. 2.
We’ll all find out for certain Saturday when Auburn and Alabama clash in the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
In a rivalry that has produced many classic confrontations, most people are expecting another heart-stopper. A line that saw Alabama favored by a pair of touchdowns before Auburn did what it did to Georgia had been reduced to 4 skinny points at last check. That’s the smallest point spread in that game since 2010, when the Tigers were 3½-point underdogs. Auburn won 28-27 that year, by the way.
So, if the sixth-ranked Tigers win again this year, the Bulldogs can look forward to playing arguably the hottest team in the country and one that beat them by 23 points two weeks ago.
If No. 1-ranked Alabama pulls through as oddsmakers tell us it will, Georgia gets to play the program that equates playing in the SEC title game to stopping by the store for some milk and bread on the way to the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide and coach Nick Saban have played in and won in the last three SEC championships.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs still have a little meat on their bone, as well. It is an off year for Georgia Tech (5-5), but history tells us that the Yellow Jackets will make the gathering Saturday at Grant Field as agonizing as possible, right down to the final cut block and B-back dive. The last four games in the series have been decided by an average of a touchdown, and only twice has the game been decided by more than one score in the last nine years.
But regardless of what happens in that endeavor, the Bulldogs will be keeping their appointment in the glistening new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Word is they’ve even cleared a spot next door for some extra parking for all those UGA fans.
So which team does Georgia have the better chance to beat? I’d say the blue-and-orange clad opponent would be best suited for that purpose.
I know, I know. I was there. I saw how Auburn dominated both lines of scrimmage in that last game. The Bulldogs struggled to run the football and stop the run and protect the passer like we’ve seen at no other time this season. I saw Kerryon Johnson run up and down the field all night. Barring injury, I’m assuming Tigers coach Gus Malzahn will take all those players to Atlanta with him.
But I also suspect the Tigers also will need a couple of extra buses to bring their confidence up I-85 with them as well if they happen to beat the Tide. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. They might be coming with too much.
Auburn also is a different team outside the confines of Jordan-Hare. I’m not sure how evident it was to those watching on television, but I know the folks inside that stadium on that night of Nov. 11 know that team wasn’t going to lose to anybody entering that space. The place was a powder keg, and the Bulldogs lit the fuse with their freakishly ill-timed personal foul penalties and special teams gaffes.
This time around, Georgia will hold a neutral-field advantage. By the time the SEC Championship Game kicks off (Dec. 2, 4 p.m. ET, CBS), Bulldogs fans will have had nearly a month to snap up tickets. And any extra ones floating around after the Iron Bowl surely would be headed for red-and-black hands. Alabama fans hold more renewable tickets to the SEC Championship Game than any other team. In those parts, to pass them over to Auburn fans would be sacrilege.
The word on the street is that Alabama is suddenly vulnerable. The Crimson Tide have lost four linebackers to injuries through the course of the season, the latest two earlier this month. But they still have senior Rashaan Evans, one of the SEC’s best linebackers, and freshman Dylan Moses has played great since being pressed into duty. He’s yet another former 5-star recruit the Crimson Tide simply plugged in.
Meanwhile, quarterback Jalen Hurts and that Alabama offense look scary good. The Tide are averaging 43 points per game this season, tops in the conference. Yes, Jarrett Stidham and Auburn can move the ball, too, and did against Georgia. They were able to even muster together a few plays beyond Johnson running the ball one way or another. But in terms of having to defend one of these two teams, Hurts and his running ability coupled with Calvin Ridley and everything else the Tide bring to the table makes them to more troublesome of the two.
None of which is to say Georgia doesn’t have a chance against Alabama. I think the Bulldogs have a shot at beating either one of these teams. Against Auburn, they might even be favored.
Against Alabama, it would be a decided underdog.