ATHENS — The Georgia-Auburn game would appear to be the ultimate game of patience, more of the Bulldogs and Tigers ramming ball carriers into brick wall defenses.
Could it be so simple as to which team cracks first in the 3:30 p.m. showdown on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium on The Plains?
The No. 4-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 5-1 SEC) have a season riding on it, and for many of the Georgia starters, a final grasp at career goals.
UGA can clinch the SEC East Division for a third straight year with a win over the No. 12 Tigers (5-2, 4-2) , but also, stay alive in the race for a College Football Playoff Race.
A two-loss Georgia team would not be viewed favorably, especially when one of those losses is to a South Carolina team with a losing record.
Never mind that the Bulldogs, on that Athens day, beat themselves with turnovers and missed field goals.
There’s a good chance Kirby Smart subscribes to a philosophy that, with this defense, the only way Georgia can lose is to beat itself with turnovers and poor special teams play.
Auburn comes in with a big home field advantage and an even bigger advantage coming off a bye week.
Tigers coach Gus Malzahn is 9-0 after a bye week at Auburn, and 11-0 in his coaching career.
Here are 3 keys to today’s game at Auburn:
As much as Georgia needs to take care of the football, the Bulldogs need to do a better job forcing them. The Bulldogs rank next-to-last in the SEC with just 10 takeaways the season, with only two interceptions against league opponents.
Auburn, meanwhile, has 11 fumble recoveries and 12 forced fumbles, ranking fourth and fifth nationally in those categories.
Tailbacks D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien have proven reliable with their ball security, but Fromm and his receivers will need to take great care to hold the ball tight.
One more reason possessions are at a premium: Georgia and Auburn are two of only six teams not to allow more than 24 points in their games this season.
2. Passing efficiency
Forget the complex formula, we’re talking about avoiding sacks and converting on third down, two things that Jake Fromm has been quite adept at the past two games. Fromm and the Bulldogs are an eye-popping 20-of-36 on third downs in the wins over Florida and Missouri, two of the more respectable defenses in the league.
Fromm hasn’t had a turnover since the South Carolina loss on Oct. 12, and he has only been sacked five times, the fewest in the nation.
Auburn, meanwhile, is relying on young legacy QB Bo Nix. Malzahn has one of the best offensive minds in college football, and he’s done well to keep his young player out of bad situations and efficient.
But if Georgia does get the Tigers into third-and-long, Nix can be had and big plays can be made.
3. Special teams
Missed field goals have played pivotal role in two of Georgia’s last three losses, dating back to a defeat in the SEC Championship Game.
Few are better than Rodrigo Blankenship, but he’s human, and the Bulldogs’ have over-relied on him to account for some red zone deficiencies and conservative play calls.
Smart said Thursday he wants more out of his return game, too, and now young Dominick Blaylock will be in the business of returning punts through heavy traffic.