ATHENS — Auburn might be a little overrated. I say that and I also say this: I thought the Tigers were underrated back when they were routinely getting dissed in the preseason. Lest we forget, they were picked sixth in the West back at SEC Football Media Days. Remember all that “Gus Malzahn on the Hot Seat” talk back then? Yeah, well, you’re not hearing that anymore.
As it is, Auburn is coming to Sanford Stadium to face Georgia on Saturday with a 7-2 record and No. 8 national ranking. The Tigers are 5-1 in the SEC and coming off a 23-16 home win over Vanderbilt. That’s one team that they’ve beaten that Georgia hasn’t. Auburn also beat Ole Miss 40-29 the previous week. The Bulldogs, you may recall, lost to the Rebels 45-14 back in September.
That said, I was taken aback this morning when I saw the Las Vegas lines open with Auburn as a 10-point favorite. Somebody told me earlier Monday that is the biggest underdog Georgia has been at home since Florida came to call back in 1995. I can’t independently verify that at the moment but, suffice it say, it’s very unusual for the Dogs to be that big of an underdog on its own field.
Now this is not a normal year for UGA. Believe me, I’ve watched every play of every game they’ve played this season and, going back to that struggle I witnessed against Nicholls State in Week 2, I thought this was probably going to be a team of limited potential. It was back then, when I saw how Georgia’s line struggled to open holes for Nick Chubb and a newly-healed Sony Michel, that I first looked to my colleagues and said, “the Dogs may be in for a long year.” Those of you who follow Georgia closely like me probably have had such thoughts validated increasingly since then.
The season reached a low point for Georgia with back-to-back losses at home to Vanderbilt and then again to Florida in Jacksonville. And it would have sunk lower still had the Bulldogs fallen to Kentucky this past Saturday in Lexington. But they didn’t.
No, Jacob Eason was cool and Rodrigo Blankenship remained hot and Georgia pulled off a 27-24 thriller late on a cold night at Commonwealth Stadium. Auburn loyalists certainly scoffed at that result, the Bulldogs struggling so with such a perennially-challenged program. But this was neither a typical Kentucky team nor a typical Kentucky home game. The Wildcats started the day in second place in the East and, before the game ended, had a chance to finish it in first. That’s why the Big Blue packed out their newly-refurbished stadium and made it sound like a typical SEC venue up until that final kick.
Actually, playing Kentucky and its run-heavy offense may have been the perfect preparation for what the Bulldogs will face this Saturday in Auburn. The Tigers are the best in the SEC at running the football – best in offensive production, period, for that matter – getting 300 of their 500 yards a game on the ground. And the irony in that is the narrative back in the summer was folks were concerned about what the Tigers were going to be able to do on that side of the ball. What the Wildcats do is run the ball out of a spread look, often with the runner lined up at quarterback, or in the wildcat, which also happens to be what Auburn does a lot.
But the Tigers have some issues coming into Saturday’s game. They didn’t start their starting quarterback, Sean White, against Vandy because of an apparent shoulder injury that kept him out of practice the whole week. But White came in to relieve John Franklin III after halftime and played well, as he has all year.
The really big deal is what the status will be for star running back Kamryn Pettway. The 6-foot, 240-pound sophomore — the SEC’s leading rusher at 138 yards per game — pulled up lame on another one of his many long runs. He finished with 173 yards but didn’t return with what some are reporting is a quad injury. The Tigers have a lot of other good backs, like Kerryon Johnson and Stanton Tuitt. But Pettway, who went for 169 or more yards in four straight games, is the engine that makes that offense go. So his availability will be key.
Regardless, Auburn is still a doggone good team. That’s what I thought when I was breaking them down back at SEC Football Media Days this past summer. And that had nothing to do with the offense. The Tigers’ defense – and defensive line in particular – is what impressed me.
And it still does. Auburn has all the parts, with Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Dontavius Russell up front (and a bunch of young bucks backing them up), some dynamic linebackers behind them and a lively secondary in the back third. New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been able to put it all together for the Tigers and give them a strong defense again, something they missed during the disaster than was last year’s 7-6 season.
So Auburn’s good. Real good. But I’m not certain they’re as good as everybody thinks.
Reading up on the Tigers the last two days, I kept running across stories about the real SEC title game coming up in the Iron Bowl in three weeks. That’s when they play No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, of course. And, indeed, an Auburn win in that one would propel them to the SEC championship.
But it has to get by Georgia first. And that hasn’t been an automatic thing here of late. The last time Auburn came to Sanford Stadium with such a lofty record and ranking was 2014, when it was ninth. The Bulldogs won that night 34-7, albeit with a team ranked 16th themselves.
In any case, Georgia has won eight of the last 10 in Deep South’s oldest rivalry. The Tigers’ last two wins in the series have come when they went on to play in the national championship game, and one of those took the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” to do it.
I guess they could reach that pinnacle again this year. Auburn certainly will arrive in Athens confident and favored and with much to play for. But I still think of that LSU game back in September and how it could have easily gone the other way (bet Les Miles does, too). I remember that game vs. Texas A&M and I see those injuries popping up here and there. I see the Tigers horsing around in their locker room and posing for one of those goofy mannequin challenges and I just wonder what their mindset is.
Handle the Bulldogs like those bookies are projecting and I’ll believe. Until then, I’ve got some doubts.