AUBURN, Ala. — At the beginning of the year, Auburn vs. Georgia looked like a matchup in which the Bulldogs would be favored without any question. Auburn hasn’t won in Athens in over a decade, and the Tigers have struggled in recent years with their oldest rival.
But while Auburn (7-2, 5-1 SEC) bounced back from an early slump, Georgia (5-4, 3-4 SEC) hit a wall that featured a blowout loss to Ole Miss, a heartbreaking Hail Mary loss to Tennessee, a stunning defeat to Vanderbilt and a rivalry disappointment to Florida that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested.
The Bulldogs are experiencing some growing pains under first-year head coach Kirby Smart, while the Tigers have rallied behind their once under-fire leader, Gus Malzahn.
Auburn appears to have the advantage heading into Sanford Stadium, but Georgia is still one of the most talented rosters in all of college football. Then there’s that whole history hump to clear for the Tigers in an intense rivalry game that brings plenty of fierce recruiting battles to the field.
Who has the position-by-position edge in this year’s edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry? Let’s take a look.
Auburn: Sean White isn’t 100 percent, but he showed in the second half against Vanderbilt that he’s healthy enough to lead the offense to success. He completed 77 percent of his passes and immediately gave the Tigers the spark to score a go-ahead touchdown. White is the catalyst for this Auburn offense with his ultra-efficient style, which will be huge considering the health situation at running back.
Georgia: Jacob Eason has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC in time. But the inconsistent true freshman has had some growing pains, especially behind a rough-looking offensive line. He’s completed 53.3 percent of his passes but has recorded a pair of 300-yard games. Eason has done well with quick passes — something Auburn has struggled defending in recent weeks — so the Tigers need to rattle him.
Auburn: Kamryn Pettway may or may not have practiced this week, and his status for the Georgia game doesn’t look great. The Tigers still sound confident in the options behind Pettway, as Kerryon Johnson was the starting running back before his ankle injury against Mississippi State. Stanton Truitt is capable of running between the tackles and springing a big play or two. Potentially not having the SEC’s leading rusher will be tough, but Auburn has put up big numbers on the ground without its lead back this season.
Georgia: Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should have been one of the best one-two punches in the entire country this season. However, without adequate blocking up front and some health issues, they’ve seen their yards go down in 2016. Chubb is capable of delivering big games like he had against North Carolina (222 yards) and Missouri (121 yards), and Michel is coming off one of his best performances of the season. Their talent alone is fantastic. They just need more help around them.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Auburn: Leading receiver Tony Stevens is expected back in action after not recording a catch in the last three games — two of them because of injury. Darius Slayton is fresh off the best game of his young career, and he’s a real weapon as an outside blocker on run plays. Look for Georgia native and true freshman Kyle Davis to get some chances against the Bulldogs on Saturday. Ryan Davis and Eli Stove will be weapons in the short game as Auburn leans on its deep corps against this Georgia defense.
Georgia: Georgia’s receiving production is concentrated on three main targets — junior Isaiah McKenzie (32 catches, 459 yards, 6 TDs), sophomore Terry Godwin and true freshman tight end Isaac Nauta. The Bulldogs’ top two receivers don’t bring much in size, but Nauta will be a real weapon across the middle of the field at 6-foot-4. This will be a good test for Auburn’s secondary, which had first-half woes in its last two wins against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
Auburn: Auburn’s offensive line played somewhat below expectations against Vanderbilt, but it still paved the way for a victory. Senior left guard Alex Kozan is one of the best in the country, and senior right tackle Robert Leff has emerged as a dominant force on the ground. Experience counts in a rivalry matchup of this magnitude, and Auburn has four starters with plenty of big-game training. This unit needs to be the difference-maker, especially if Pettway can’t play.
Georgia: This is Georgia’s weakest link this season. The Bulldogs have severely underperformed up front after losing a pair of veteran tackles to graduation this offseason. Georgia allows a little more than 2 sacks per game this season and blocks for a talented rushing attack that ranks just 68th nationally in rushing yards per attempt. Against strong defensive fronts, this front five hasn’t lived up to expectations, and Auburn will bring a tough, Georgia-bred front four to Athens on Saturday.
Auburn: Georgia natives Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams lead the way for this defensive line, coached by former Bulldogs assistant Rodney Garner. The depth and star power up front should be able to wear down the Georgia offensive line, even if the Bulldogs elect to go with a quick-passing attack in order to avoid the relentless rush. True freshman Marlon Davidson will be an X-factor, as his unending motor will be key in hunting Eason and slowing down the thunder and lightning duo of Chubb and Michel.
Georgia: This is the strength of a Georgia defense that has played well in spots this season. The Bulldogs are tied for 19th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, and a lot of that has to do with this front. Trenton Thompson, a former No. 1 overall recruit, leads the team in tackles for loss. Georgia’s 3-4 scheme puts more emphasis on linebackers coming up to rush the passer, but the young stars up front do a good job of putting pressure on the opposition. Auburn has more bodies up front than a banged-up Georgia line, but don’t sleep on this unit.
Auburn: Tre’ Williams should return from his injury this weekend, and Deshaun Davis is back after his targeting ejection in the first half against Vanderbilt. That will be a huge boost to a linebacking corps that proved last weekend it could perform well when it got down to the reserves such as Montavious Atkinson and T.J. Neal. The Tigers need to tighten things up in pass coverage at linebacker, especially considering the threat of passes to the running back and tight end in Georgia’s offense.
Georgia: Georgia plays plenty of linebackers, from sack leader Lorenzo Carter and fellow veteran Davin Bellamy to underclassmen such as Natrez Patrick, Roquan Smith and David Marshall. This unit is stout against the run, but they’ve had some issues in helping the secondary in coverage. If Georgia can stay sound in its assignments across the linebacker spots, it should be confident enough to give Auburn’s offense a tougher challenge Saturday.
Auburn: The Tigers aren’t giving up many big plays downfield, but they’ve taken some hits with quick passes over the last two weeks. Georgia usually tries those, so that strategy won’t take Auburn by surprise this week. Auburn needs to play better coverage against Georgia, as Eason is a young quarterback who can make some spectacular throws when given the opportunity. Keep an eye on improved veteran safety Tray Matthews — the former Bulldog will play his old team for the first time Saturday in a place he once called home.
Georgia: While Georgia gives up fewer passing yards per game than Auburn, those numbers are skewed by the lackluster passing attacks the Bulldogs have faced in recent weeks in the SEC East. The Bulldogs led the nation in that category last season but have dropped there this year despite returning a lot of talent. They’ll force interceptions, though, as they’ve picked off at least one pass in six of their nine games this season. This group is playing with a lot of confidence after some good weeks, but White is a different test.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson’s only missed field goals this year are two blocks — and one of those was an unstoppable effort by Zach Cunningham. Carlson will take away opportunities for Georgia to make things happen in the kick return game with his touchbacks, and he’s been clutch in close games all year long. Kevin Phillips continues to boot unreturnable punts in the 40-yard range. Kerryon Johnson busted a couple of great returns against Vanderbilt, and he’ll be the one to watch in that category Saturday.
Georgia: Rodrigo Blankenship, the bespectacled kicker who wears his helmet during interviews, is 9 for 10 on the season and just hit his first career game-winner last week. Georgia has faith in him if this game comes down to the wire. Punter Marshall Long only averages 38.71 yards per boot but is coming off one of his best statistical nights of the season. Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie haven’t made huge highlight returns this season, but Auburn is definitely aware of the latter’s talent after what he did to the Tigers last year.
The Bottom Line
If football games truly are won and lost up front, then Auburn is in a good spot. Its biggest strength is lining up with Georgia’s greatest weakness. The Tigers’ own offensive line turned things around after a slow start to the season to perform at an elite level, which is key against an attacking Georgia defensive front.
Pettway’s potential absence would be a blow to Auburn, but having a healthy White play from beginning to end will help tremendously. Auburn must tighten things up against the quick-passing attack, because Georgia is built to do just that and then open things up for its talented running backs.
Auburn is going against an underwhelming rival looking for a statement win under its first-year head coach. It also has to play in a venue it hasn’t won in since 2005. The matchup is on Auburn’s side, but the history is not. That should make for a down-to-the-wire game in Athens on Saturday.