ATHENS – Where’s Pat Dye when Georgia needs him?
Remember way back in 2002 when the former Auburn coach and All-SEC defensive lineman for Georgia called out the Dogs? Dye went on the Paul Finebaum radio show in Birmingham the week Georgia was scheduled to play Alabama in Tuscaloosa and infamously said, “I don’t believe Georgia’s man enough to beat Alabama.” In fact, Dye repeated it later that week.
As it turns out, it was a rare moment when Dye was trying to help out his alma mater. He was just trying to give the Bulldogs some fuel he thought they might need to pull off a road win against the Crimson Tide, a result that would be mutually beneficial for both programs. He admitted as much on Sunday.
“Neil Callaway, my close friend and former coach, was coaching Georgia’s offensive line. And Rodney Garner, who played and coached for me, was coaching their defensive line,” Dye said during a phone conversation from his Notasulga, Ala. “Having coached at Auburn and living here in the same state with Alabama, you’ve got to know I wanted Georgia to win the ballgame.”
And Georgia obliged. Mark Richt repeated Dye’s remarks to the team all week and the Bulldogs pulled off a hard-fought 27-25 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium that Saturday. It was the first victory in Tuscaloosa in program history.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they won’t have Dye to provide additional incentive for them when they might need it this week. While Dye is indeed a UGA alumnus, his loyalties have never been divided when it comes to Auburn. He coached there for 12 seasons, won four SEC championships as their head coach, and the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium is named for him.
It’s War Eagle all the way when the teams meet for the SEC title on Saturday.
“I’m still at Auburn,” Dye said sharply. “It’d be just like asking Vince Dooley if he wanted Auburn to win.”
No, the Bulldogs will have to muster up their own masculinity when it comes to the task that’s ahead of them this week. The No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) get a rematch with Auburn on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta (4 p.m., CBS). And, mostly, that’s a good thing.
But make no mistake about it, being man enough is Georgia’s task this time. How the Bulldogs match up with Auburn on the lines of scrimmage is going to dictate what happens this second time around. Lest we forget, Georgia didn’t compete very well in that regard in the last meeting, won by the Tigers 40-17 on Nov. 11 in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn’s formidable front seven and stout defensive line in particular absolutely stoned the Bulldogs’ vaunted rushing attack that day. Nick Chubb was Georgia’s leading rusher with 27 yards, and the Bulldogs managed just 46 on the day, a stat exacerbated by quarterback Jake Fromm being sacked four times for minus-33 yards.
Conversely, Auburn rushed for 246 yards that afternoon on The Plains. Kerryon Johnson led the Tigers with 167 yards on 32 carries and also was his team’s leading receiver with 66 yards, including a 55-yard TD.
And here’s the thing: All those cats up front will be on the field for Auburn at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
All the talk in the 24 hours or so since the SEC title game was set has been Johnson’s injury status in the wake of the Tigers’ win over Alabama. The 6-foot, 212-pound junior was his usually productive self against the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide with a 125 total yards, a rushing touchdown and a TD pass. But on his 30th carry of the night, Johnson crumpled to the ground without contact due to a shoulder injury.
Johnson’s status for Saturday’s game against Georgia is, as you might imagine, uncertain. So far, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has provided no details beyond his star back “has a shoulder issue.”
And you know what? He won’t provide more than that. That’s just the way it is nowadays. Whether it’s from Georgia’s camp or one of its opponents, nobody plays it straight up anymore when it comes to injuries. For any injury situation that’s not abundantly clear at the time it is incurred (ie: knee ligament tear or broken arm or leg), coaches are going to play coy with it and keep their opponent guessing.
My personal perspective – no inside scoop, other than a few Auburn folks I know saying “he’s a tough kid” – is that Johnson will play. Unless there’s an actual break of some sort or some serious ligament or muscle damage within Johnson’s right shoulder, he’ll play in the SEC title game. If it just hurts, they have things they can use for pain. They’ll just pad him up and Johnson will go.
But regardless of who’s toting the football for Auburn, it’s still about those grunts up front. And on Nov. 11th, at least, the Tigers’ grunts were a whole lot better than Georgia’s.
Now Dye knows a thing or two about physical football. He and his good friend – and Auburn alum – Dooley faced off in some of the physical matchups in the history of SEC football when Dooley coached Georgia the 1980s. That’s not an exaggeration.
While Dooley was coming forth with Herschel Walker, Tim Worley and Rodney Hampton, Dye was countering with Bo Jackson, Lionel James and Brent Fulwood in the mid-to-late 1980s. Accordingly, it made for some slobber-knocking matchups, usually with an SEC title on the line.
Dye actually got the best of Georgia at the time, winning seven out of the 12 games.
Though Dye is thoroughly blue-and-orange now, he still has a special affinity for Georgia, where he matriculated and played football from 1957-60. The Bulldogs thought enough of him to induct him into their Circle of Honor in 2013.
But Dye also remains very much an astute follower of football. Now 78 and living on a 740-acre spread 15 miles outside of Auburn, he watches games through coaching glasses. And while his Tigers were thoroughly dominant up front in the previous meeting with Georgia, there still are a lot of things about this rematch that give him cause for concern.
Dye, too, is worried about the availability and/or effectiveness of a banged-up Johnson, “who’s a pretty dynamic player. It’s not like Georgia; we don’t have five of them.”
But even more, he believes Georgia may have a motivational edge and certainly will have a locational edge when it comes to Saturday’s rematch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“What happened two weeks ago has absolutely zero with what happens Saturday,” Dye said. “If it did, why bother playing the game? But that’s not the case. And I’m here to tell you, if we had our preferences, we’d be playing somebody besides Georgia. We do understand the psychology in this ballgame. It’s hard to beat somebody twice.
“The other thing is, there is no question that Georgia will have a tremendous home-field advantage playing in Atlanta. Who do you think owns all them boxes up in that stadium? Do you think they’re going to sell them to Auburn people? They’re already gone anyway. Georgia’s had three weeks to grab all the tickets. So, we’ve got a helluva lot to overcome before the game ever starts.”
However it turns out, Dye expects a good game and one that should be much more competitive than the one that will have been played three weeks ago. And while he desperately wants his Tigers to win another championship, he won’t all broke up if his alma mater happens to come through this time.
“Ah, you don’t think about all that stuff,” said Dye, now 78, and busy running a hunting preserve and Japanese maple nursery on his land. “We’re just out here trying to make a living.”