Georgia fans, take a second, close your eyes and think back. Think back to the Auburn-Georgia game last year. After trailing 37-17 with 12:39 to play, the Dawgs pulled off an improbable comeback behind Aaron Murray to take a 38-37 lead with 1:49 on the clock. A 20-point deficit turned into a one-point lead in a matter of 11 minutes. On the ensuing drive, Auburn faced 4th-and-18 from its own 26-yard line. The only choice Auburn had was to run the lowest percentage play that exists in the game of football: the Hail Mary. Nick Marshall dropped back and held the ball for four seconds against a three-man rush. The prayer was launched with 32 seconds on the clock and six seconds later, Auburn had maybe the most improbable win in the series. “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare” – the play-that-shall-not-be-named – was answered by Nick Marshall and Ricardo Louis, and Dawg fans were crushed. That memory is still as haunting and as painful as it was immediately after it happened.
This year, the game many expected at the beginning of the season to be a College Football Playoff elimination game is finally here: Georgia-Auburn, The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Though both teams are sitting with two losses and likely out of playoff contention, this year’s game still holds great significance in the SEC and has some very compelling storylines. How will Auburn bounce back after two costly fumbles in last weekend’s home loss against Texas A&M? Can Georgia even up the series at 55-55-8 with a win? Can Hutson Mason pick apart a secondary that got scorched by freshman quarterback Kyle Allen in his first SEC start, on the road? Will Georgia get revenge for the play-that-shall-not-be-named from last season? But the biggest storyline is obviously the return of Georgia’s prodigal son – the Beast from the SEC East – Todd Gurley and the Dawgs’ return to Sanford Stadium, under the lights, for the first time since its game against Vanderbilt on October 4.
As the 55-54-8 series record indicates, this has been a hotly-contested rivalry for many years, and that is not going to change this year. Neither team can afford a third SEC loss and both teams still have something to prove. Georgia and Auburn are similar teams when you look at the numbers:
- Passing Yards: 196.9 (93rd overall)
- Rushing Yards: 256.3 (15th overall)
- Points For: 43.0 (7th overall)
- Points Against: 23.2 (38th overall)
- Passing Yards: 220.4 (75th overall)
- Rushing Yards: 286.4 (8th overall)
- Points For: 38.7 (14th overall)
- Points Against: 24.1 (46th overall)
This game has all the makings of a high-scoring, entertaining, back-and-forth battle ‘Between the Hedges’. Here’s who has the edge:
It’s no secret that Nick Marshall is both a threat as a passer and a runner. He has completed 61 percent of his passes this season for 1,576 yards, which is slightly better than his 59.4 completion percentage last season, while also passing for 14 touchdowns against four interceptions. He has 113 carries for 698 yards, which is an average of 6.2 yards per carry and 77.6 yards per game with three lost fumbles on the year. He has only been sacked eight times in nine games. Nick Marshall becomes more and more dangerous with the more time he has to go through his sequence of receivers or tuck it and run. If Georgia wants to avoid getting burned, Pruitt is going to need to mix up his blitz packages to put consistent pressure on Marshall.
Hutson Mason has shown a good bit of promise as a quarterback over the past couple games. He is completing 69 percent of his passes for 1,515 yards and has been very effective avoiding interceptions, having thrown just three picks this season. Mason is not your prototypical dual-threat quarterback, but he has shown some escapability under duress. Georgia has allowed 13 sacks on the year, though the Dawgs’ offensive line has been one of the more underrated lines in the country, helping power an effective running game. Based on the experience and dual-threat capabilities that Nick Marshall has shown, Auburn has the edge here.
Slight Edge: Auburn
Todd. Gurley. Is. Back. Enough said. After a four game suspension, Todd Gurley returns to an already potent Georgia backfield, ready to dominate and put the Bryan Allen scandal behind him. He will have fresh legs and he will be running with a vengeance. Put Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas into the rotation, and Georgia has a veritable four-headed monster that all college programs would kill to have. No team has the depth at running back that Georgia has, plain and simple. Yes, Auburn has more rushing yards per game than Georgia, but in a physical SEC game, the fresher legs will prevail. Cameron Artis-Payne will wear down as the game progresses and Georgia will just continue subbing to keep the defense on its toes. If Georgia’s offensive line can open up holes like it has all season – Gurley is averaging 8.2 yards per carry and Chubb 6.7 – it could be a long day for the Auburn run defense.
Georgia and Auburn have both shown weaknesses in defending the pass this season. Auburn has given up 2,312 passing yards and 15 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks this year – an average of 256.9 yards per game. Georgia has given up 1,674 passing yards and 11 touchdowns this season, which averages out to 186.0 yards per game. As unbelievable as it is to say, Georgia has the edge in the secondary, especially if Hutson Mason can keep up the precision passing he has shown all year. The rushing defense is another story. Georgia’s run defense has regressed significantly over the past three weeks, leading to linebacker Leonard Floyd sitting out most of the Kentucky game with Lorenzo Carter seeing most of the action. Georgia gives up 152.0 yards per game on the ground, and has yielded 17 rushing touchdowns to its opponents. Auburn’s run defense has been more consistent this year, giving up 129.4 yards per game on the ground, while surrendering 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Both sides are talented when it comes to stopping the run, but both are facing stiff tests this week. These two defenses are even identical when it comes to takeaways. Auburn has forced a whopping 20 fumbles this season, but has only recovered five of them. Add that to the 14 interceptions the secondary has this year, and Auburn has 19 takeaways (a +5 turnover margin overall). Georgia, on the other hand, has recovered eight fumbles and picked off 11 passes, giving it 19 takeaways as well. The difference: Georgia takes care of the ball, having only turned it over on offense or special teams six times all year (a +13 turnover margin overall). Georgia is allowing about a point less per game on the season, but this is a toss-up. Neither team has the edge.
With Todd Gurley coming back, you can be sure that Mark Richt and Mike Bobo are looking for ways to get him involved in more than just the offense. If he’s returning kicks on Saturday, watch out. He has a chance to break loose when he has the ball in open space. Then there is Isaiah McKenzie, a.k.a. “The Human Joystick,” who had a kick return and punt return touchdown last week against Kentucky. Auburn will have a tough task stopping a powerful return game, assuming Quayvon Hicks doesn’t injure the Georgia return specialists like he threatened to last week. Auburn also has dangerous return specialists in Quan Bray, Ricardo Louis and Corey Grant. Marshall Morgan probably has the slight edge over Daniel Carlson in the kicking game, but Auburn probably holds the edge in punting. It’s tough to call.
Slight Edge: Georgia
There are always those two or three things that get a team amped up to play, those certain intangibles that can give a team an added boost. Auburn has got to be mad the way it lost last week against Texas A&M at home. You can be sure that anger will carry over into Athens. You can also be sure Auburn will not take too kindly to being dubbed as the underdog in this game, as most lines show Georgia as a 2.5-point favorite. It’s that kind of disrespect that really gets a team going.
That being said, Georgia holds the clear edge in this category. Think about it this way: Dawg fans will fill Sanford Stadium to the gills after a full day of raucous tailgating ready to welcome Todd Gurley back. During player introductions, one can only imagine how crazy the crowd will be when Gurley’s name is read as the starting tailback. Couple that with the fact that Georgia is home for the first time in over a month, at night, playing for its SEC life and you’ve got the makings of a perfect storm for Auburn. If this game were two weeks ago, the intangibles wouldn’t matter as much. But this is Georgia’s final SEC game, and you can bet it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere.
This year’s version of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry should be fun and entertaining to watch. It will be a close game, but Georgia has too much riding on this game to let Auburn spoil Gurley’s homecoming. Georgia wins a hard-fought, emotional battle 42-38 and keeps its SEC title hopes alive.
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