ATHENS – There might be a more closely contested rivalry in college athletics than Georgia and Auburn have in football, but it’s hard to imagine.
After playing 121 football games in 125 years, Auburn and Georgia stand almost dead even in record. The Bulldogs lead the series 57-56-8. The point difference over that span is 88 – or .73 points per contest.
There was nothing close about the last meeting in this storied rivalry. The Tigers manhandled UGA 40-17 just three weeks ago. But that game was played over in what they like to call the Loveliest Village on the Plains. The two teams will be breaking new ground when they face off this next time.
Six score and five years after first playing before a couple of hundred folks in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, Georgia and Auburn will move 3.5 miles down the road play before 75,000 in the city’s sparkling new venue known as Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Fittingly, they will for the first time ever compete for the SEC championship.
“It’s been an eventful year,” said second-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who has led the Bulldogs to at least 11 victories for just the 10th time in program history. “We’re excited to get to play in what I consider to be one of the greatest venues and greatest games in all of football.”
There is a lot more than rivalrous pride riding on the outcome this time. Not only will the winner be proclaimed SEC champion, but the winner is virtually assured of being included in the third edition of the College Football Playoff. After knocking of Georgia and Alabama – each ranked No. 1 at the time – in successive weeks, Auburn (10-2) has risen to No. 2 in the last CFB rankings. The Bulldogs (11-1) are No. 6, with No. 5 Alabama (11-1) sitting between them and one of the coveted top four spots required to be included in the semifinals.
“It’s obviously had a lot of impact over the years on the playoff system and the BCS system,” said Smart, who has coached in the game several times for Alabama and once with Georgia. “It’s a great environment, very special, and we get the privilege of playing what I think is one of the hottest teams in college football in Auburn.
Georgia hasn’t won an SEC championship since 2005 when Smart was a young running backs coach for the Bulldogs. UGA has played in the game five times since 2002, winning it twice.
Auburn also has played in the game five times, winning three of them. The Tigers last won it when they beat Missouri 59-42 in 2013.
Incredibly, they’ve never met the Bulldogs in this game.
“They’re still one of the top teams in the country,” Auburn coach Guz Malzahn said. “It’s a challenge playing them for the second time in three weeks.”
Here’s what Georgia has to do to see that it comes out on top this time:
Show some creativity
The Bulldogs are all about toughness and “physicality,” a word that Smart likes to use. A lot. But sometimes a team must acknowledge that its opponent is just as tough and physical as it is and find another way to achieve its objectives.
This needs to be the case with Georgia’s offense the second time around against Auburn on Saturday. When the Bulldogs arrived on The Plains on Nov. 11, they did so believing they could run the ball on Auburn just like they had every other defense they had faced. The Tigers believed differently and proved that to an increasingly level of effectiveness as the game continued.
The problem for Georgia is it didn’t adjust well to that reality. The Bulldogs simply kept trying to run zone-read dives to either side of the line of scrimmage with almost no success. They ran the ball 32 times and averaged 1.4 yards per carry with Jake Fromm’s four quarterback sacks factored in, 2.9 without.
Apparently, Georgia had no real Plan B to that strategy. It needs to have one this time. If the Bulldogs can’t run into the teeth of Auburn’s defense, then they need to run around it or not run. Two wrinkles they’d employed could help with the situation.
Ben Cleveland has started at right guard in the two games since. Georgia’s run game has appeared more effective, albeit against the lesser defenses of Kentucky and Georgia Tech.
Also, the Bulldogs utilized a two-tailback, split backfield in those two contests, first with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and later interchanging them with other backs. Though it left them with one less blocker, faking one way and running the other appeared effective in both of those games.
Georgia did attempt to pass the ball against Auburn the first time. It just didn’t do a very good job of it.
Fromm attempted 28 passes but completed a season-low 42 percent of them for 184 yards. That had a lot to do with the fact he was running for his life much of the time. He was sacked four times but hurried many more, primarily by Auburn defensive end Jeff Holland.
A few things need to happen this time: (1) Georgia’s receivers have to establish separation and catch the ball when it comes their way. Riley Ridley had a drop of what should have been at least a long gain if not a touchdown; (2) the Bulldogs need to target 6-foot-4, 215-pound wideout Javon Wims more; (3) Georgia has to protect better.
Freshman right tackle Andrew Thomas was a mismatch for Holland, so Georgia either has to scheme for that or Thomas has to play much better.
Hit a couple of deep balls on the Tigers and that will get their safeties out of the run game.
Play by the rules
This applies to both teams. Georgia was flagged seven times for 75 yards in the first meeting, including four personal-foul penalties. Auburn was flagged five times but for a total of only 29 yards.
Obviously, the Bulldogs have to play with more poise and not get whistled for 15-yard penalties, particularly at the critical times that the ones came last time. Georgia needs to eliminate personal fouls completely this time around.
Meanwhile, Auburn seemed to get away with a lot of fouls in the first meeting. The Tigers’ defensive backs kept their hands on Georgia’s receivers throughout the game, yet were never called for holding or interference. Smart pointed this out to the SEC office the following week and sent in video evidence.
The SEC utilizes the top officials at each of the six positions for the championship, so this should be the best crew the conference can offer. It could pay off for Georgia if Auburn either holds less or is flagged when it does.
Hold that Tiger
Speaking of holding, Georgia has to do a better job against Kerryon Johnson and the Tigers’ run game in particular.
Johnson, a 6-foot, 212-pound junior, is arguably the best running back in the SEC and has the stats to prove it. He has a conference-best rushing average of 127.6 yards per game and is the SEC’s leading scorer with 19 touchdowns. He was both the Tigers’ leading rusher (167 yards) and receiver (66 yards) in the first meeting.
Johnson suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the final minutes of Auburn’s win over Alabama last week. His status for the game Saturday is unknown, but Georgia expects him to play. If he doesn’t, there is a significant dropoff in the talent quotient in backup Kam Martin.
That said, the Bulldogs have to do a better job against slotback Eli Stove as well. The 6-foot, 180-pound speedster averaged 13.8 yards on jet sweeps and goes in motion across the backfield almost every snap.
Stick it to Jarrett Stidham
Georgia managed to sack Jarrett Stidham twice in the first meeting, but generally Auburn’s sophomore quarterback was able to find ample time to throw. He finished with 214 yards on 16-of-23 passing and threw for three touchdowns.
Stidham was sacked 11 times by Clemson in the Tigers’ second game of the season. While Auburn reshuffled its line after that game, it’s mostly the same personnel up front. UGA defensive coordinator Mel Tucker needs to find some cracks in the Tigers’ protections and make Stidham uncomfortable in the pocket. And Georgia outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter have get to him more often.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ defensive backs have to do a much better job this time around. Eight different players caught passes from Stidham and four of those receptions went for between 32 and 55 yards, three for touchdowns. It’s understandable that Georgia is going to give up some completions to Auburn’s fast-paced, spread scheme. But the Bulldogs have to limit if not eliminate completely those explosive plays.
Clean up special teams
Georgia has dominated its opponents on special teams in almost every other game but Auburn. And that was only because of uncharacteristic mistakes.
Twice the Bulldogs were flagged for personal-foul penalties on special teams, Mecole Hardman muffed a fair-catch that the Tigers recovered at Georgia’s 23 and scored four plays later and Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 42-yard field goal.
Otherwise, Hardman had 185 yards in kickoff and punt returns and punter Cam Nizalek averaged 44.6 yards on eight punts. So if Georgia can clean up the mistakes, it can actually win this area this time around.
Not much the Bulldogs can do about Auburn’s kicker, though. The Tigers have arguably the nation’s best place-kicker in senior Daniel Carlson. He lived up to that billing with four fields goals – including a 54-yarder – in the first meeting.
But the Bulldogs are better in every other phase of special teams and need to demonstrate that.