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3 keys to winning a rematch with Auburn
I’m not going so far as to say Auburn’s 40-17 win against Georgia was a fluke, but it was equal parts a Georgia loss as an Auburn win. Auburn is arguably the best team in college football right now — inarguably the hottest — and it beat the hell out of Georgia that Saturday on the Plains. The Bulldogs did their best to meet them halfway, though, committing senseless penalties, coaching not to lose instead of to win and shrinking when challenged by Auburn in the trenches.
The Monday after the Auburn game, I covered three problems from the loss to Auburn Georgia has to address if it is going to make the College Football Playoff. Now that a berth in the College Football Playoff is on the line in a rematch with Auburn in the SEC Championship, if Georgia hasn’t fixed those problems the result will be the same as it was in Auburn. So here are Georgia’s three keys to the SEC Championship Game.
1. No dumb penalties
Georgia dug itself a hole against Auburn with dumb penalties, committing seven for 75 yards, Uncharacteristic personal fouls by D’Andre Walker and Sony Michel in particular cost the Bulldogs, with Walker’s extending an Auburn drive on fourth-down and Michel’s handing the the Tigers excellent field position. Auburn scored touchdowns on both drives.
Georgia is middle-of-the-road nationally in penalties this season, ranking 65th in the nation in fewest penalty yards per game (53.3). Against Kentucky, Georgia was almost as undisciplined as it was against Auburn, committing seven penalties for 59 yards. Things improved against Georgia Tech, though, when Georgia committed just two penalties for 25 yards. On Saturday, the Dawgs will need that same discipline they showed against Tech in the big-game atmosphere of the SEC Championship Game. This Auburn team is too good to give free yards and first downs, as it proved in early November.
2. Fearless coaching and play calling
Conservative play-calling led to a fiasco for Georgia at the end of the first half against Auburn. After making something out of nothing and creating a potential scoring chance near the end of the second quarter, with plenty of time to throw a few passes to the end zone, Kirby Smart and Jim Chaney chose to run the ball. Michel was stuffed and Georgia only managed a field goal chance, which was missed.
Smart later admitted that he called the run because he was afraid Auburn would sack Jake Fromm and knock Georgia out of field goal range. That’s coaching not to lose, not coaching to win. There are times when conservative decision are warranted, typically games against inferior opponents when you don’t want to get too fancy. That time has passed. Any time Smart has a shot at putting six points on the board instead of three, he better take it. That doesn’t mean he needs to take unnecessary risks, but it does mean he can’t squander any opportunity Georgia has to score a touchdown and build momentum.
3. Win the battle in the trenches
As I said after the Auburn game, Georgia getting bullied on both lines of scrimmage was its ultimate undoing. And that’s not something easily fixed. There isn’t a simple scheme change Georgia can do that’ll give it the upper hand. It’s so simple it sounds dumb, but the only way for Georgia to beat Auburn at the point of attack is to execute better, play better, heck, just be better. How does a team that got manhandled the way Georgia did against Auburn improve enough in a three week span to beat them?
One way is to reshuffle things, like Smart has done on the offensive line since the Auburn game. Ben Cleveland has looked good in the two games he’s started at right guard. With him and Solomon Kindley platooning at that spot, maybe Georgia can stay fresh enough to combat NT Marlon Davidson, who closed running gaps before Georgia’s tailbacks ever had a chance to see them. DE Jeff Holland, who recorded a sack and 3 QB hurries against Georgia, is a different story. Tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wynn are simply going to have to play better, or they’ll need help from some tailbacks and tight ends to keep him at bay.
Defensively, the issue is simpler, in my opinion. Auburn’s offensive line is good, but the Georgia front seven shouldn’t have been dominated by it. The UGA defensive line also has to play better, but it’ll have an extra pick-me-up the offense might not have: the crowd. Auburn was the only true road test Georgia faced this season. It was the first, and last, game all season when there wasn’t a vocal section of Georgia support. Not only can crowds give defenses energy to feed off, they can also make calling plays at the line difficult for the offense. But there will be plenty of Dawg fans in Atlanta this weekend, which should make the Georgie defense feel much more at home.
One of the many, many subplots to this SEC Championship Game is the brouhaha that’s ensued following CBS color analyst Gary Danielson’s revelation that Smart sent in some plays from the Auburn game for review by the SEC. According to Danielson, Smart told the analyst he thought Auburn got away with defensive holding on a number of occasions. Smart declined to comment when asked about it earlier in the week and it stirred up a conversation among media types about what is and isn’t appropriate for broadcaster to mention from their pregame meetings with coaches. It’s a whole thing.