NOV. 12: AUBURN AT GEORGIA, TBA
UGA LEADS 56-55-8
LAST YEAR: Bulldogs won 20-13
HOOVER, Ala. — Gus Malzahn can identify with something Georgia coach Mark Richt said during his dismissal press conference in Athens eight months ago.
“I think the expectations have been built to the point that if you don’t win a championship it’s kind of miserable around here,” Richt said last December. “If we don’t make it to (the SEC championship game in) Atlanta, I’m miserable, too.”
Malzahn was feeling pretty miserable after last season, too. He, too, won an SEC championship early in his tenure as the Tigers’ head coach. The first year, in fact, 2013, when he piloted Auburn not only to the conference title but to the last BCS championship game.
But Malzahn really felt the weight of expectations last year. It was here, at the 2015 SEC Football Media Days, that the Tigers were tabbed as the projected SEC champions.
They finished last in the West at 7-6 overall and 2-6 in conference play.
“You know, when I look at last year, really the thing that stands out to me is we lost close games,” Malzahn said as he was the first head coach up at the podium for 2016 Media Days, same as last year. “In this league, you’re going to have a lot of close games. The two previous years, we were one of the best in the country at winning close games.”
One of those close games the Tigers lost was to Georgia, 20-13, in Jordan-Hare Stadium. In fact, with the exception of the two years Auburn ended up winning the conference title and playing for the national champion (2010 and 2013), it never fared very well against Richt-coached Georgia teams.
The Bulldogs owned a 10-5 overall record against the Tigers during Richt’s tenure. But Georgia was particularly dominant that last decade, winning eight of the last 10.
Richt was, of course, fired by Georgia after last season. Malzahn was asked if he was glad to see the Bulldogs’ old coach go.
“First of all, Mark Richt is one of the better coaches in all of college football, I think,” Malzahn said during the main media session in The Wynfrey ballroom Monday. “And he’s one of the true professionals in all of college football. I think he’s a great example for young guys getting into that profession of what — how you’re supposed to act, how you’re supposed to, you know, go about your business. So, I’ll say that first. And it was an honor for me to coach against Coach Richt.”
Enter Kirby Smart.
With Richt gone to Miami, Malzahn now has a new Georgia coach with whom to contend. And these two coaches know each other well.
Malzahn and Smart have matched wits on the gridiron six times in the last seven seasons. The first three was with Malzahn as Auburn’s offensive coordinator and Smart as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Malzahn was still calling the Tigers’ offense the last three years against Smart’s Crimson Tide defense.
Smart’s side won the matchups four times, also losing only in those two championship years, 2010 and ’13.
“We have a lot of history,” Malzahn said of Smart. “I have a lot of respect for him as a football coach. We’ve had some pretty good battles. We know each other pretty well. And that’s always been a pretty good rivalry and continues to be a good rivalry.”
Smart could have some added incentive for wanting to beat Malzahn. Smart interviewed for the Auburn job that Malzahn eventually landed in 2012.
While Georgia and Auburn is the oldest rivalry in all of the Deep South, it has often gotten overshadowed by the more famous Iron Bowl rivalry with Alabama. But it remains a very important game for both teams, always coming in late November and usually with some sort of championship considerations on the line.
There’s no guarantee that Smart can continue the level of success Georgia enjoyed under Richt. That late run pushed the Bulldogs ahead in the 119-game series, 56-55-8.
Meanwhile, the competition has already been well under way on the recruiting trail. As ever, the Bulldogs and Auburn often go head-to-head for the best recruits from the state of Georgia. Thanks in part to the movement of longtime defensive line coach Rodney Garner from UGA to his alma mater of Auburn, the Tigers currently sport two of the best linemen in the conference on their roster.
Junior Carl Lawson is from Alpharetta and Montravius Adams is from Vienna. They’re particularly motivated to flip the rivalry back in their favor.
“Georgia’s a big rivalry for me simply because I’m from Georgia,” said Adams, who attended Dooly County High and was once considered likely to become a Bulldog. “My sophomore year, well, I never really had a dominant game like I wanted to against Georgia. So, for me, I just feel like I have a lot to prove.”
For Lawson, who was the nation’s No. 1-ranked defensive end when he signed with Auburn out of Milton High, playing Georgia in and of itself is not motivating.
“I think that’s more of a fan’s take on it,” Lawson said Monday. “I see every game as the same, let’s go win. Besides the Bama game, every other game is like, ‘I want to beat this team no matter what.’ I kind of see all those teams in the same view. For me personally, I want to win all those games. So it’s not like a true, big-time rivalry between Georgia and Auburn. But that’s just me growing up.”
It’s big for Malzahn. Now entering his fourth season at the helm of the program, he has some idea now Richt was feeling as he was winning a lot of games but coming up short in the championship hunt.
The Tigers won’t be the media’s pick to win the SEC this year. But that doesn’t mean Malzahn or Auburn doesn’t expect to.
“We had high expectations (last year) and we do every year. We weren’t able to reach our goals,” he said. “That was very frustrating and it was very humbling to go through an experience like that. And I think you got to evaluate everything, like we talked about. You’ve got to figure out a way to improve. I will tell you that I’m extremely motivated this year, as well our staff and our team is.”