ATHENS – Home, sweet, home. Well, at least that’s the thinking.
The Georgia Bulldogs are back home at Sanford Stadium for the first time in a month and will play their last three games of the 2016 regular season there. UGA played six of its first nine away from Athens, including two at neutral sites. So for once the Bulldogs’ longest bus ride will be from the Butts-Mehre Building to the Dawg Walk at the Tate Student Center.
That should be a good thing. The only problem is, things haven’t gone great for Georgia even when it has been at home. The Bulldogs are 1-2 between the hedges this year, with the only victory coming in an excruciatingly close one against Nicholls State. So their play hasn’t been magically elevated just because they’re on home turf.
And now comes Auburn. The No. 8-ranked Tigers (7-2, 5-1 SEC) represent Georgia’s best opponent to date. The Bulldogs (5-4, 3-4), coming off a last-second victory over Kentucky, enter as a double-digit underdog at home for only the seventh time in verifiable history. They’re 0-7 in those previous games. Should Georgia drop this one to Auburn, it will represent the first time since the 1950s Georgia failed to win an SEC game at home.
But there is reason for hope. The Bulldogs have generally played well against Auburn in what is known as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Georgia has won eight of the last 10 in the series, with the two losses coming on The Plains against Auburn teams that ended up playing in the national title game. One of those defeats took “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.”
The last time the Tigers were favored this big over Georgia came in 2006. That’s when a freshman quarterback named Matthew Stafford lifted the Bulldogs to a 37-15 victory over No. 5 Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. UGA has a freshman quarterback of similar pedigree on its roster.
So there is hope. Here’s how it breaks down:
STOPPING THE RUN
This is a category that could really be included every week for every game, but it’s especially applicable with this Auburn team. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing and it’s not close. Their 299.8 yards per game – let’s just go ahead and call it 300 – is ahead of the number two team Alabama by 40 yards a game. So clearly that’s the Bulldogs’ number one task, to slow that down to whatever extent they can.
Kamryn Pettway is the chief culprit for Auburn. The 6-foot-, 240-pound sophomore battering ram is the SEC’s only 1,000-yard rusher so far with 1,106 yards so far, or 138.2 yards per game. And he’s been particularly hot of late, with no less than 169 in the last four games. But he literally fell down in the middle of another long run in last Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt. Auburn won’t say what his malady is, but it appears to be a quad or hamstring injury. He finished with 173 yards. Coach Gus Malzahn said the plan was to practice Pettway late this week and he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Pettway ended up playing Saturday.
Regardless, the Tigers should still be able to run the ball. Running backs Kerryon Johnson (77 ypg) and Stanton Tuitt (29-182) are dynamic backs, too, and it’s ultimately a veteran-laden offensive line that has been giving them room to run.
In the meantime, Georgia is among the best in the SEC against the run. It is third in the league at 118.2 yards per game, just one-tenth a yard per game behind LSU. The Bulldogs’ biggest issue coming in is injuries to defensive linemen Trent Thompson (hip) and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle (high-ankle). Thompson should be able to go but Hawkins-Muckle looks doubtful. Linebacker Natrez Patrick is also “banged up.”
QUARTERBACK DUEL COMING
One of the biggest improvements Auburn has made from last season to this one is quarterback play. Sophomore Sean White has been extremely efficient at that position, which was a huge question mark for the Tigers coming into the year. After playing three quarterbacks in the opener against Clemson, White has emerged has the undisputed starter. He comes into Saturday’s contest leading the SEC in pass efficiency with a 159.9 rating. He has completed a gaudy 69 percent of his passes for 1,617 yards with 9 TDs and just 2 interceptions.
White didn’t start for the first time all season last week against Vanderbilt due to an undisclosed injury. Thought to be a shoulder issue, White came off the bench at halftime to relieve John Franklin III – the “running quarterback” who has played in every game – and led the Tigers to a hard-fought 23-16 victory.
Georgia counters with an emerging star in true freshman Jacob Eason. For the third time this season, the 6-6, 242-pounder led the Bulldogs down the field for the go-ahead score in the final minutes. His proficiency in such situations has led many to wonder if Georgia simply needs play a two-minute style offense all the time with Eason at the controls. Otherwise, Eason has been only average. He’s completing 53 percent of his passes for 1,754 yards with 11 TDs and 5 interceptions. His pass efficiency rating of 117.2 is not among the SEC’s top 10 quarterbacks.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said the Bulldogs will continue to seek balance with a run-first mentality that relies on the work of start tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. They achieved that objective to an almost perfect degree with a 245-215 pass-run distribution in the win over Kentucky. The one area in which Auburn seems somewhat vulnerable on defense is against the pass, where it allows 230 yards a game. So perhaps a pass-first philosophy will be the strategy against the Tigers.
‘HOT ROD’ NEEDS TO STAY HOT
Place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship was the Bulldogs’ hero coming out of the Kentucky game and has become a bit of a cult hero in the process. He made four field goals, including a 49-yarder and the game-winner as time expired, and gained fame in the Dawg Nation with his wide-rimmed “rec specs” and pink-striped kicking cleats. Blankenship has now made nine straight since missing the first of his career from 39 yards out in the Ole Miss game.
Georgia especially needs Blankenship in this game as the Bulldogs will be facing the SEC’s best place-kicker Saturday in junior Daniel Carson. Carson has incredibly range and accuracy, having made 20 of his 22 field-goal attempt, including three of more than 50 yards (53, 53, 51). And of his 55 kickoffs, 48 of them have been touchbacks. So that’s been a real advantage for the Tigers, and helps them be more aggressive in their play-calling once they reach the plus side of the field.
In addition to place-kicking, the Bulldogs have to continue clean up on all aspects of special-teams play, including kick returns and kick coverage. Isaiah McKenzie muffed another punt return against Kentucky. Another such special teams turnover against Auburn will surely spell defeat.