It’s the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, and Auburn vs. Georgia returns this week with the Bulldogs as the two-time reigning winner.
Auburn (7-2, 5-1 SEC) travels to Sanford Stadium to take on Georgia (5-4, 3-4). The Tigers are the heavy favorite, which is a reversal of narratives from what many people believed would happen at the beginning of the season.
But Auburn has captured some mid- to late-season magic, cruising to six-straight wins and riding Gus Malzahn out of hot-seat talk. Conversely, Georgia has shown flashes of talent and flashes of first-year woes during Kirby Smart’s opening season as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
With the Tigers expected to win, here are the 5 Key Things that have to happen to help ensure an Auburn victory.
1. Establish the ground game — no matter who is running
The jury is still out on Auburn’s primary running back against Georgia. Gus Malzahn wasn’t willing to make a final decision one way or another on the status of Kamryn Pettway, who suffered “a leg injury” on his final carry of his 173-yard day vs. Vanderbilt. Whether it’s Pettway, Kerryon Johnson, Stanton Truitt, Eli Stove or Kam Martin, Auburn needs to stick to its identity and pound the rock.
In terms of yards per game, Georgia is ranked third in the SEC allowing 118.22 yards per game. When it comes to touchdowns, the Bulldogs have allowed 15 rushing scores, which ranks in the bottom half of the conference. Opponents have been able to wear on Georgia’s run defense in red-zone situations.
Auburn is the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC for a reason. It’s the Tigers’ identity, and it will continue to be as long as Malzahn is in charge. Pettway surged to the top 10 in rushing nationally, and he’s understandably become the forefront of the offense lately, but that shouldn’t stop Auburn from doing what it does best.
2. Eliminate third-down coverage miscues
On third and fourth down, Vanderbilt converted for first downs on 8-of-18 attempts last week. That’s way above the 30-percent standard Kevin Steele expects of his defense. Even worse, a few of those conversions came in mid- to long-yardage passing situations, which has been an Auburn strong point this season.
The bend-but-don’t-break mentality has been executed masterfully by the Tigers this season. They rarely, if ever, allow receivers to get behind the safeties. If teams are completing passes, it’s generally layups short of soft-covering corners. That’s all well and good — especially when you have Josh Holsey making game-saving plays — but avoiding those third-down breakdowns will be crucial on the road in Sanford Stadium.
Georgia only converts 38.52 percent of its third-down attempts. The Tigers need to get rid of some of the pass coverage issues that have shown up at inconvenient times the last couple weeks — especially with a young quarterback and unimposing receivers on the other side.
3. Make Jacob Eason beat you
As Kevin Steele put it, Jacob Eason “can throw the ball to LaGrange.” The freshman quarterback has a cannon, and he’s shown an ability — see: Tennessee and Missouri — to put the football wherever he wants. He now has almost a whole freshman season under his belt, which makes him much more prepared for the big rivalry game than he was earlier in the season.
Still, Auburn has to force Eason to create the win on his own. Like Auburn, Georgia is going to try to run the football because that’s what it does best. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are headliners in a conference filled with strong tailbacks, but their numbers have tapered off slightly from their freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Auburn’s defense needs to treat the duo the same it did Leonard Fournette and Derris Guice. Load the box and force the quarterback to make plays in the passing game.
Eason has the ability to make big throws. But he’s still somewhat unproven against top-level competition. Holsey, Carlton Davis, Javaris Davis, Tray Matthews, Rudy Ford and the rest of the secondary could feast.
4. Give Sean White some downfield chances
Auburn is one of two teams in the SEC yet to complete a pass of 50-plus yards this season. White doesn’t have the biggest arm, but his accuracy has been lethal for opponents this season, nearly at the 70-percent mark. Still, he’s shown the ability to give receivers chances in the downfield passing game.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said a few weeks ago if there’s one area the passing game needs to show improvement, it’s the deep ball. There wasn’t much opportunity to emphasize that against Vanderbilt with White sitting out the first half. When he returned, most of his throws were short-yardage, though there were a few in the 25- to 35-yard range.
Georgia hasn’t had major issues in pass coverage this season, but there have been times the Bulldogs have been susceptible to downfield passes in 1-on-1 situations. The Tigers will get a chance to open things up the following week against Alabama A&M, but Saturday will be the final chance against SEC competition to polish the downfield air attack before the Iron Bowl.
5. Live the ‘just another game’ cliché
Nobody in the Auburn Athletic Complex is going to say this Georgia game means more than any other. The Tigers have lost the last two years, and this game always has personal meaning to Auburn because of the high number of players that played high school ball in Georgia.
It’s one thing to talk about it in the week leading up. It’s another thing to live it on Saturday.
The Bulldogs have had the advantage in the rivalry over the past decade, and Auburn’s players are well aware. When it comes time to battle in Sanford Stadium, the Tigers have to make sure they continue to do the same things they’ve been doing since the beginning of their six-game winning streak.
It sounds like coach-speak, and it is. But, the reality is: Auburn is more talented and has more depth than Georgia. The Tigers find themselves in the top 10 and on the fast track to a winner-take-all Iron Bowl. Emotion often plays an unexpected role in a mismatched rivalry game.
If Auburn avoids that and does what it does, the Tigers — now 10-point favorites — should coast.