My how the mighty have fallen. The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry – the Georgia-Auburn game – was supposed to be huge with major playoff implications. The media had it all figured out, picking the Georgia Bulldogs to win the SEC East and the Auburn Tigers to win the SEC West in the preseason. Looks like the rest of the league had other thoughts.
With both teams eliminated in the SEC race, the Georgia-Auburn game – which starts at 11 a.m. local time – will be nothing more than a battle for bragging rights. When all is said and done, this is still a huge rivalry with implications on recruiting in Alabama and Georgia. The series is tied 55-55-8 all time and Georgia has won seven of the last nine match-ups. This season, when the Bulldogs travel to Auburn, they’ll be looking for a chance at redemption from their last trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Two seasons ago, during Auburn’s near miraculous run to the BCS National Championship game, one improbable play sunk Georgia – the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare“. Georgia was up 38-37, there were 36 seconds on the clock and Auburn faced 4th-and-18 from their own 27 yard line. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall took the snap, stepped up in the pocket and unleashed a Hail Mary downfield, into double coverage. Georgia defensive backs Tray Matthews – who now plays for Auburn – and Josh Harvey-Clemons – who now plays for Louisville – collided trying to intercept the pass, and disaster struck. The ball was tipped up into the waiting arms of Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis who strolled into the end zone. Auburn wins.
This year, Auburn is still looking to become bowl eligible, while Georgia is looking to ease some of the tension in Athens following a terrible October.
Here are five things the Bulldogs need to do to win this year’s Georgia-Auburn game:
1. Remember what worked in last week’s win vs. Kentucky
Georgia dominated the Kentucky Wildcats last week – both on offense and defense. The defense never let Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles get comfortable and the offense reestablished some of its offensive rhythm, especially in the run game. Georgia should continue to bring unique looks on offense – the Wild Dog formation included – against a shaky Auburn defense that ranks 94th in the country, giving up 430.6 yards per game. Auburn did hold the Texas A&M Aggies to just 303 yards last weekend, but if Georgia can effectively run the ball, they will be golden. Defensively, though Georgia did not record a sack last week, the consistent pressure on the quarterback will be a game-changer against Auburn, who is unsure which of its quarterbacks will start against Georgia. Study the film from Kentucky, replicate the results for Georgia-Auburn. Simple as that, right?
2. Protect the football
In Auburn’s win over Texas A&M last weekend, the Tigers defense forced three turnovers – all interceptions. The Bulldogs won the turnover battle against Kentucky, but in the last three weeks, they have turned the ball over eight times. Auburn has only lost 10 turnovers all season, while Georgia has lost 16. In a toss-up game like this one, especially on the road with a quarterback (or two) who have been extremely inconsistent, winning the turnover battle is imperative. Georgia tends to turn the ball over in the worst situations – like the muffed punt for a touchdown in the game against Florida and the Sony Michel fumble against Tennessee right before halftime. Protect the football, sustain drives and Georgia should win Saturday.
3. Don’t let Peyton Barber get loose
Auburn running back Peyton Barber is probably pretty excited to face a Georgia run defense that has regressed throughout the season. Though the Bulldogs do still boast the 28th-ranked rushing defense, holding opponents to 131.4 yards per game, they have struggled against teams with solid running backs. Barber, the sophomore running back out of Alpharetta, GA, has been the workhorse for Auburn, rushing 193 times for 828 yards (4.3 yards per carry) for 12 touchdowns. Yes, nine of those scores came in two games and Barber has not scored a touchdown in the past two weeks, but he has the ability to change the complexion of a game. If Georgia can take an early lead, Auburn has been known to abandon the running game when trailing, as evidenced by their losses to the LSU Tigers and Ole Miss Rebels. Either the defense needs to contain Barber, or the offense needs to score early to force Auburn to throw the ball against Georgia’s 11th-ranked passing defense (173.9 yards allowed per game).
4. Pick a quarterback already
When a top-tier school like Georgia is still switching quarterbacks during games this late in the season, you know there is trouble. Quarterbacks Greyson Lambert, Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta have each gotten the opportunity to showcase their talents (or struggles), and it is time for Georgia to pick one and stick with them. If it’s Lambert, Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer needs to develop a game plan that matches his abilities – short to intermediate passes, play-action and misdirection. If it’s Bauta – who we have been told is a dual-threat quarterback – throw in some designed quarterback runs, unlike what happened in the game against Florida. Either way, Schottenheimer needs to do a better job calling plays that will give Georgia its best chance to win. The Georgia-Auburn game is no time to experiment. It is a must-win game. Go with the “hot hand” from practice this week, and stick with them.
5. Convert on third down
Georgia still ranks near the bottom of the FBS in third down conversions – converting just 32.1 percent of their opportunities. One of the most important things the Bulldogs can do to win the Georgia-Auburn game is sustain offensive possessions. Stay on the field. What might help: Auburn ranks 118th in the country when it comes to third down defense, allowing opponents to convert a whopping 48.1 percent of their attempts. Georgia’s defense has done a great job getting off the field on third down – allowing just a 30.1 percent conversion rate (Auburn converts 43.5 percent of the time on offense) – so it’s time for the offense to take advantage against Auburn.
The winner of the Georgia-Auburn game takes the lead in the series, and this truly might be one of the hardest ones to predict in recent memory. Both teams have quarterback questions, both teams are out of the SEC race and both teams need a win badly. It’s a toss-up. Because Georgia’s defense is better than Auburn’s, they get the slight edge, but this game is likely going to be close. Whichever team can run the ball more effectively and win the battle for time of possession should come out on top.
Georgia wins: 27-21.