ATHENS – Next to Sanford Stadium, there is not a football venue with which Kirby Smart is more familiar than Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. He has coached and played in that stadium more than any place other than Alabama, where he spent nine years as an assistant.
In fact, Smart has been on a sideline opposite those blue-and-orange-clad Tigers more than any team he has faced in his football life. He has gone against the Tigers 18 times in his lifetime or every year but four since he left Bainbridge as UGA football signee in 1994.
His team’s record in those games is about is even as it could get: 9-8-1. That includes a tie in 1994 when Smart was being redshirted as a Georgia defensive back and 1999 when he was an administrative assistant for the Bulldogs under then head coach Jim Donnan.
So, yes, Smart knows a thing or two about Auburn. In his case, you could definitely say familiarity breeds contempt. You could also say it breeds respect.
“I have been there a lot throughout my coaching career,” Smart said earlier this week. “They get loud in there, and they do a really good job of creating an environment. They feed off of that. So, the challenges are in front of us. We will find out a lot about this team playing on the road. It’s a tough place to play against a really good football team.”
Certainly, Smart has participated in games of varying magnitudes at every placed he worked. As a player, he was a part of the Bulldogs’ 56-49 victory in four overtimes and was actually 2-0 on their field. As an assistant coach at LSU, his first on Nick Saban’s staff, the No. 5-ranked Bengal Tigers’ lost a 10-9 heartbreaker to 14th-ranked Auburn on The Plains.
Of course, they had all sorts dramatic tussles while Smart was with Alabama. The Crimson Tide were 6-3 against Auburn with Smart on the defensive staff, 3-2 at Jordan-Hare.
Of course, that record would be 4-1 if not for the infamous “Kick Six” play that nobody will likely forget any time soon. Smart hasn’t. He said that’s really all he remembers as far as vivid details of the matchups.
“That haunts you forever, but that’s really it,” Smart said.
But all that’s in the past. The ranked Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0 SEC and No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings) hope to make some new memories for Smart and the Georgia fans when they visit Jordan-Hare for the 30th time in the storied history of the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” And this one is shaping up as an instant classic as the teams meet as Top 10 teams.
The Tigers (7-2, 5-1) rose this week to No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings released. That makes Auburn the highest-ranked two-loss team in the country and keeps its championship and playoff goals alive.
So, it will be an extremely motivated team and fan base that Georgia will encounter on The Plains on Saturday. The good news is Smart and the Bulldogs know exactly what to expect. Doing something about it, as they’ll tell you, is a different story.
“It’s the same challenge it is at most SEC places, it’s just a little bit louder,” said Smart, speaking from experience. “And they have a good team. The better the team is the tougher the place is to play. Their fans get loud, get rowdy. They are there pregame until the end. There have been some really loud moments playing in that stadium. I would not expect it to be any different on Saturday.”
We wouldn’t either. Here’s how it breaks down:
THE FROMM FACTOR
To date, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has risen to every challenge that has been laid before him. This one will be the biggest.
You can start with the noise factor to which Smart alluded. Jordan-Hare is typically one of the loudest venues in the SEC, especially when the Tigers put a good team on the field, which they are this season. But that’s just the half of it.
In Auburn, Fromm and the Bulldogs will be taking on the best defense they’ve faced this season. That goes double for the defensive line. The Tigers feature the SEC’s sack leader in junior defensive end Jeff Holland (6-2, 249), who is tied with Vanderbilt’s Charles Wright with 8. He also has 13 quarterback hurries, 11 tackles for loss, has forced four fumbles and recovered one
But it’s not just Holland. Sophomore defensive tackle Derrick Brown has three sacks, defensive end Marlon Davidson has 2.5 and the Tigers have 26 as a team, which is fourth in the SEC. And Auburn is just stingy on defense besides. It has forced 50 three-and-out on 114 drives this season, or 5.56 per game. That ranks fourth nationally.
The good news for Georgia is it’s not trotting out a Bambi at quarterback. Sure, Fromm is young, but he has experienced challenging environments before. His first career start came on the road at No. 3-ranked Notre Dame in a nationally televised night game. And while the caliber of opponent can be questioned in retrospect, Fromm has played road games at Tennessee and Vanderbilt and in a neutral-site venue against a salty Florida defense in Jacksonville.
Though he’s undefeated, Fromm has been far from perfect in those contests. Three of his four interceptions this season came on the road. But overall he has performed well. He has completed 54.8 percent of his 62 passes for 430 yards and five TDs.
It will likely be more of a challenge for Georgia’s offensive line. Five of the seven times Fromm has been sacked behind them came on the road. Keeping Fromm upright will be their toughest task to date.
WHICH TEAM CAN RUN?
Both of these teams like to run the football, and which one does it best likely will emerge victorious.
Georgia has taken over the top spot in the SEC in rushing offense. Behind the strength of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and three other tailbacks, the Bulldogs are averaging 279.3 yards per game, which bests Alabama by about a yard a game and the rest of the league by nearly a football field on average.
But Auburn can run the ball a bit, too. In fact, the Tigers are fourth in the league with 259.3 yards per game and feature the SEC’s leading rusher in Kerryon Johnson (124 ypg). The chief difference in the two ground attacks is Johnson is doing most of the work for Auburn. The 6-foot, 212-pound junior had 29 carries last Saturday versus Texas A&M and is averaging 23.6 attempts per game.
On the flipside, both of these defenses are very good at stopping the run, and very few are better at it than Georgia. The Bulldogs rank fifth nationally and second in the SEC against the run at 89.0 yards per game. Auburn is 26th and fourth, respectively, at 126.4.
Meanwhile, it could be a very special day for Chubb. The Georgia senior needs just 13 yards to move into fourth on the SEC’s all-time rushing. The person he’d pass? Auburn’s Bo Jackson.
GETTING AFTER STIDHAM
Auburn infamously gave up 11 sacks against Clemson in the second game of the year and 14 in the first two games. While the Tigers have definitely made great strides in shoring up that deficiency, it’s still an issue for that offense and something Georgia will look to exploit.
The Bulldogs have some work to do in that regard, too. Certainly senior outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter are forces to be reckoned with on the edges, their quarterback harassment numbers have flattened out from the middle to this point in the season. After combining for three sacks and two fumbles in the win over Notre Dame in the second game of the season, they come into Saturday’s contest with only 6.5 sacks between them. Carter leads the team with 4.0 and Georgia has just 18 as a team, an average of 2 per game.
While Georgia’s nationally-renown “Junkyard Dawg defense” is not necessarily predicated upon sacking the quarterback, it’s imperative that the Bulldogs disrupt and move Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The sophomore transfer from Baylor is completing well over 70 percent of his passes when he is not pressured and he leads the SEC in completion percentage as it is at 66.8.
Meanwhile, the Tigers feature one of the most talented receiving corps in the SEC and certainly the best Georgia has faced this season. Ryan Davis is tied for the SEC lead in receptions per game (5.3) and Atlanta native Darius Slayton is coming off games of 149 and 99 yards against Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Tigers can flat out get open downfield and the Bulldogs need to make sure somebody’s in Stidham’s face to keep that from being constant matchup issue.
SPECIAL TEAMS SHOWDOWN
For the first time in a while, the Bulldogs will meet their match in the place-kicking game. While Rodrigo Blankenship has proven to be Mr. Reliable this season, both on kickoffs and placement kicks, there is arguably no better kicker in America than Auburn’s Daniel Carlson.
Nicknamed “Legatron,” Carlson is the SEC’s career scoring leader with 440 points and was a preseason All-American choice because he ranks in the top six in 12 SEC kicking categories. And while Blankenship is on pace to break Kevin Butler’s record for touchbacks in a season with 44 to this point, Carlson has 54 already on 65 kickoffs. Like Blankenship, Carlson is one of 12 semifinalists for the 2017 Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nation’s top kicker.
Georgia gets the edge in the all-important punting game. The Bulldogs and Cameron Nizalek are second in the SEC in net punting at 42.8 yards. Auburn is last in the league at 46.1.