Georgia’s lone loss of the season was a little more than two weeks ago to then-No. 10 Auburn on the road. The Tigers dominated the Bulldogs 40-17, the first of two wins over No. 1-ranked teams for Gus Malzahn’s squad.
Now fresh off of a satisfying 26-14 victory over archrival Alabama in the Iron Bowl, Auburn looks to beat Kriby Smart and Georgia for the second time on Saturday in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game. Whichever team wins is practically assured of a spot in the College Football Playoff. But just because the Tigers struck first, that doesn't mean that the SEC East champs can't return the favor.
5 Reasons Why Georgia Will Win the SEC Championship Game
1. It’s very difficult to beat the same team twice
Yes, Auburn proved itself the better team the first time around, as the Tigers beat Georgia in impressive fashion. Logic would dictate that Auburn can beat the Bulldogs again. After all, the Tigers’ defense dominated Georgia at the line of scrimmage and completely shut down the Bulldogs’ rushing attack while also making quarterback Jake Fromm look like the true freshman he is, holding the young signal-caller to 184 passing yards while completing less than 50 percent of his attempts. On the other hand, Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham was outstanding in the win, throwing for 214 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, and he’s showed no signs of slowing down in the weeks that followed. Kerryon Johnson ran for 167 yards and added a 55-yard TD reception.
Nevertheless, there are several psychological factors at play. Auburn won in blowout fashion, and though head coach Gus Malzahn would surely dispute it, the Tigers could find themselves overconfident as a result. Malzahn and the coaching staff also face the dilemma of whether to design their game plan around what worked the first time around, or to change it to avoid being too predictable. Like Auburn, the Georgia coaching staff has watched the film from the regular season matchup, and the Bulldogs are sure to be better prepared this time around.
Furthermore, Auburn is coming off another emotional high after beating their biggest rival last week to secure a spot in this game, and facing two of the most physical teams in the country in such a short time span has undoubtedly had an effect. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs had their spot in the SEC Championship Game wrapped up nearly a month ago, giving the coaching staff time to look ahead to the potential rematch awaiting them in December.
2. Auburn’s dominance might have been a fluke
Again, the Tigers were the dominant team three weeks ago, and Auburn deserved to win the game. Nevertheless, Georgia’s performance was so far below its season standards there is reason to believe the lopsided final score was more of a fluke than an indication the Tigers are a far superior team.
Consider the fact Georgia leads the SEC with 265.7 rushing yards per game and 6.15 yards per carry in conference play. But against Auburn, the Bulldogs managed just 26 yards on the ground on 32 attempts (1.4 ypc), an incredibly poor result given the offense racked up at least 185 rushing yards in every other game, including 200 or more 10 times, and three conference games with at least 370.
Led by standouts like Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, the Tigers are obviously talented up front. Auburn has held its opponents to 125.9 rushing yards per game and 3.34 yards per carry this season, both of which rank in the top 25 nationally. However, the Tigers surrendered at least 70 rushing yards to every other opponent (nearly all of which are less talented than Georgia). A team with a similarly talented offensive line and running backs, Alabama had 206 rushing yards while averaging 5.6 yards per attempt last week. Simply, it’s highly unlikely Auburn can neutralize Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and the Georgia rushing attack again.
3. Georgia should be more disciplined
Often overlooked over the course of a game, and generally lost in the box score afterward, penalties can have a huge impact on a game. Georgia, which averages a less than angelic 6.3 penalties for 53.3 yards per contest (8.46 yards per penalty), was highly undisciplined in the first meeting with the Tigers. The Bulldogs committed seven infractions for 75 yards (10.7 yards per penalty), including several dumb mistakes at inopportune times. Among them, the Georgia defense was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty early in the second quarter that put Auburn in field goal position and the Bulldogs were called for a personal foul on 4th-and-8 later in the quarter to extend what would become the Tigers’ first touchdown drive.
Turnovers are much easier to spot, especially on special teams. Trailing 16-7 just after halftime, the Georgia defense forced a punt on the first drive of the second half, but return specialist Mecole Hardman fumbled his opportunity, which allowed Auburn to get the ball back at the Bulldogs’ 23-yard line and capitalize with a quick, four-play touchdown drive to increase the lead. A personal foul penalty on the Tigers’ subsequent drive eventually resulted in a 32-yard TD pass from Jarrett Stidham to Ryan Davis to push the lead to 30-7, essentially wrapping up the victory in the middle of the third quarter.
Poorly timed penalties and one catastrophic turnover changed the tide of the game, allowing Auburn more opportunities to build a big lead Georgia was ill-equipped to overcome. It would be unwise to expect the Bulldogs to make the same mistakes Saturday.
4. Neutral site
Auburn had Georgia right where it wanted it during the first meeting: at home at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers had a significant home-field advantage on The Plains with 87,451 fans decked out in orange and blue, and fired up for a visit from No. 1 Georgia. The Tigers would later pick up two more wins to finish the regular season undefeated at home, though it’s worth pointing out Auburn was just 3-2 on the road this season, losing 14-6 at Clemson and 27-23 at LSU.
As usual, the SEC Championship Game will be played in Atlanta and for the first time at 71,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The game will take place in the state of Georgia, and it’ll be a loud atmosphere in the new building. And though the Auburn fan base travels well and the Bulldogs won’t have a true home-field advantage, the expected 50-50 spilt in the stands and the unfamiliar surroundings for players and coaches will make it a truly neutral battleground – putting the two squads on even footing.
5. Depth at running back
Finally, as previously mentioned, Georgia has a stellar rushing attack with two elite running backs in Chubb and Michel, who have combined for 2,001 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground alone this season, as well as playmaking freshman D’Andre Swift, who averaged 7.7 yards per carry while racking up 509 rushing yards and scoring twice on the ground (plus one via the pass). Fourth-stringer Elijah Holifield also has been impressive in limited duty, having gained 199 yards and two TDs during a four-game SEC slate through October, plus 35 yards last week against Georgia Tech.
On the other hand, while Auburn has averaged 237.7 rushing yards per game this season, and an even better 250.0 yards on the ground against SEC opponents (including 237 against Georgia), the Tigers are hurting. Kamryn Pettway, who rolled up 1,224 rushing yards in 2016, hasn’t played since Oct. 21 after suffering a fractured scapula and has already been ruled out for the rematch against Georgia.
Johnson, this year’s leading rusher and a late entrant in the Heisman Trophy race, suffered a shoulder injury against Alabama and is questionable to play. Johnson leads the SEC with 127.6 rushing yards and 25.0 carries per game, both of which rank in the top 10 nationally. He has scored 17 touchdowns on the ground this season, which ranks second in the conference and sixth in the country, and also is a dependable receiver (21 rec., 187 yds., 2 TDs).
If Johnson can’t play, or if he is limited, the Tigers would have to rely on sophomore Kam Martin as the primary running back. Auburn also would likely need quarterback Jarrett Stidham to carry a bigger load in the running game. Martin has been an excellent backup this year, and he leads the team with 6.4 yards per carry, but he has yet to record more than 14 rushing attempts this season. Also, at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, Martin’s frame makes him better suited as a change-of-pace option rather than an every-down back.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributors Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.