A rivalry game with a history brimming with vignettes that you would expect from the Deep South’s oldest such competition takes on a different meaning in some years — especially one in which as much is at stake as it is for Georgia this weekend.
The first question when you evaluate the current Auburn Tigers, without question the best team Georgia will have played — Notre Dame does not line up as many SEC talent-worthy players as Auburn and doesn’t have as much overall team speed — is how this team has managed to lose two games. With a quarterback with superior abilities, Tigers fans see Georgia as vulnerable on pass defense. Auburn will fill the box when the Tigers defense takes the field since the perception is that Jake Fromm will have difficulty winning the game if he has to throw.
That would be true in any matchup with a team that is a run-first advocate. Georgia, to paraphrase Darrell Royal of Texas years ago, will dance with what brung them.
This is a game in which Georgia brings much to the table. Comparisons may or may not mean anything. You can’t explain Ohio State’s collapse last weekend, and Georgia aficionados are now aware that no means of determining a national championship can be totally fair.
All Notre Dame has to do is win out, and the Irish are in the College Football Playoff. Losing late in the season, depending on the opponent, is not positive for gaining a playoff spot. Faith in the Dawgs nonetheless remains.
Members of the College Football Playoff committee have sealed lips, but there are enough vibes out there to confirm that Georgia’s balance and strength of schedule have influenced the voters’ thinking. You liken the Bulldogs’ situation to a race-car driver. You lead the Daytona 500 for 197 laps, and then some malfunction – like a flat tire or a wreck on one of the last three laps – causes you to lose the race.
But who would not like to be in the Bulldogs’ shoes today?
The team with the best record in the country the last decade has been Alabama, and it often loses a game a year. The trick is losing the “right” game, which usually means losing one early, and that enables you to overcome a loss and rebound into the playoff picture.
Kirby Smart is building his program for the long haul: back-to-back-to-back-to-back recruiting classes that are among the top-ranked classes in the country, never having an off year. With the recruiting base he has in Georgia, he realizes that that objective can be achieved.
He is the first to offer a tip of the hat to high school coaches and not just in Georgia. Players come to campus with a three-year plan: compete for definitive playing time for three years and then move on to the NFL. If you are going to compete for championships, you must replace cogent talent with cogent talent.
I long have been intrigued by the philosophy of Tennessee’s Robert Neyland, who espoused the view that coaches only could get their team up for a peak performance once, perhaps, twice a season. The General has the best winning percentage in the history of the SEC with 82 percent.
He played as soft a schedule as possible and held the view that you never play two tough games back to back. Coaches can’t manipulate scheduling today as Neyland could. The Saban model at Alabama has been to out-recruit everybody. Knowing your team is likely to experience an off day, he can beat you on those days because he has deeper talent.
We all should be reminded that with all due respect to Auburn’s competency, Smart is not taking a team with abundant shortcomings across the Chattahoochee this weekend. He has prepared his team with knowledge of Auburn’s history and tradition from having coached against Auburn for nine years while at Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s record versus the Tigers was 6-3 during that time.
From the beginning, he has coached his players to respect the competition, play hard and keep their mouths shut. This team won’t panic, but it knows to win against a team as good as Auburn, which is playing at home where crowd noise reaches decibels as high as any venue in the SEC, will require two basic things: play a peak game and win the turnover battle.
In a quirk that is about as odd as any in modern-day football, both Georgia and Auburn have a better record on the road than at home since the game went to a home-and-home series in 1959 — leaving Columbus and old Memorial Stadium on Veterans Parkway. Auburn has an 18-14 record in Athens, and Georgia’s record at Auburn is 16-11-2.
Memorial Stadium officially seated about 15,000, but it seemed as though that twice as many found their way into the stadium. That prompted the late Shug Jordan, Auburn’s longtime coach, to remark that if you got up to go to the bathroom, you lost your seat.
Loran Smith is a writer, UGA track letterman, a former executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club and a longtime employee of the UGA Athletic Association who currently serves in the development office. His columns will appear weekly on DawgNation.