The Tigers and Bulldogs meet in Athens on Saturday night
Georgia hosts Auburn for the 125th meeting in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry on Saturday night. Considering the 10-game season and little room for error in the race to get a College Football Playoff berth, this game could have massive implications for both teams as it relates to both SEC and national landscape. This rivalry is normally held in November, but this game was moved to earlier in the year prior to the revamped 10-game slate. Considering the unusual offseason and shortened 2020 schedule, the stakes are even higher for this annual battle.
Georgia opened the 2020 season with an uneven performance against Arkansas last Saturday. The Bulldogs trailed 7-5 at halftime but rallied for a 37-10 victory on the strength of their defense. The offense sputtered under new coordinator Todd Monken, with Stetson Bennett coming off the bench to provide the offense with a needed spark. Question marks about the offense continue into Saturday’s game versus Auburn. However, it’s no secret coach Kirby Smart has assembled one of the nation’s top defenses. That unit gives Georgia a chance to win every game on its schedule and make another run at the CFB Playoff.
While it wasn’t a perfect effort, coach Gus Malzahn probably left the opener feeling good about where his team was headed into the road trip to Athens. The Tigers had some help in the form of three turnovers by Kentucky, but Malzahn’s squad was led by a solid performance from quarterback Bo Nix to earn a hard-fought 29-13 victory. Nix’s development under new play-caller Chad Morris was one of the SEC’s top storylines coming into 2020. If Nix continues to progress, Auburn could emerge as the No. 2 team in the West behind Alabama. But Nix’s development and a revamped Tiger defense will be under the spotlight Saturday night against Georgia.
Georgia holds a 60-56-8 series edge over Auburn. The Bulldogs won 21-14 over the Tigers last season.
Auburn at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -6.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn handed play-calling duties to former Arkansas head coach (and Clemson offensive coordinator) Chad Morris this offseason with hopes of sparking a group that averaged 5.6 yards a snap in 2019. The early returns were positive in the opener against Kentucky, providing plenty to build on for this Saturday’s game and beyond. The Tigers averaged 5.7 yards per snap and scored 21 points in the second half to seal a 29-13 victory.
One of the top priorities for Morris was to help quarterback Bo Nix reach his potential after an uneven freshman season. In the opener, Nix looked poised and decisive, completing 16 of 27 throws for 233 yards and three touchdowns. The sophomore has plenty of weapons to utilize, including Seth Williams (two touchdown catches last week), Eli Stove, Anthony Schwartz and Shedrick Jackson. In last year’s game, Nix connected on 30 of 50 passes for 245 yards and added 42 yards on the ground. However, Nix averaged only 4.9 yards per attempt and did most of his damage in the second half. While Nix had a solid debut, throwing against Georgia’s secondary will be a bigger challenge. The Bulldogs allowed only 11 touchdown passes in SEC play last season and feature preseason All-Americans in cornerback Eric Stokes and safety Richard LeCounte. Can Nix pick up where he left off on Saturday and continue to progress under Morris’ play-calling?
Nix’s performance clearly holds the cards to Auburn’s upset bid in Athens, but this offense has to get better play in the trenches. The Tigers managed only 91 yards on 30 carries against Kentucky and the longest run went for just 13 yards. Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams, Tank Bigsby and Mark-Antony Richards should all see carries on Saturday. But Georgia will counter with a strong defensive front and one that allowed only two rushing scores all of last season.
Georgia’s defense is clearly the best group taking the field on Saturday night. How much success will Auburn have in moving the ball and providing some balance to keep the defense from keying too much on Nix?
When Georgia Has the Ball
The offseason brought major changes to Georgia’s offense. New coordinator Todd Monken was hired to upgrade the offense, two transfers were added to the quarterback room, but there were also challenges to navigate with turnover in personnel at receiver, running back and along the offensive line. After one game, it’s clear this unit is going to be a work in progress.
Redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis started the opener against Arkansas and connected on just eight of 17 passes for 55 yards and one interception. He added 10 rushing attempts but was removed in the first half in favor of Stetson Bennett. The former walk-on completed 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 20 yards over five carries. At the start of fall practice, Bennett was likely the fourth quarterback on the depth chart, but he played well in last Saturday’s victory and is likely to get the starting nod against Auburn. But there is a wild-card player to watch this week. USC transfer JT Daniels was cleared to play after an extended recovery from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s opener against Fresno State. If Bennett struggles early, would Daniels or Mathis get the call off the bench?
Regardless of which quarterback is out there on Saturday, Georgia has to get better play up front to beat Auburn. Quarterbacks were sacked three times, and the running game only churned out 121 yards over 42 attempts against Arkansas last Saturday. On the outside, there were encouraging signs for the Bulldogs at receiver. George Pickens continued to emerge as one of the conference’s top pass catchers with four receptions for 47 yards and a score. Kearis Jackson recorded six catches, with Demetris Robertson adding four. The receiving corps could get deeper with the potential return from injury of graduate transfer Tre McKitty at tight end.
Auburn’s defense held Georgia to just 3.92 yards a snap in last year’s game and will present many of the same challenges for Monken’s group in 2020. The linebacker unit is one of the best in college football, and the defensive line – despite a revamped starting group – held Kentucky to just 145 yards and generated eight tackles for a loss and two sacks. The Tigers will also benefit from a full (and healthy) game out of end Big Kat Bryant after he was limited due to injury against the Wildcats. The formula for Auburn’s defense seems pretty simple on Saturday. Can this group stuff the Georgia ground game and force Bennett/Mathis/Daniels or prove they can consistently connect through the air?
Georgia has won six out of the last seven in this series – will that trend continue on Saturday night? With the unusual offseason and changes for both teams, some caution should be used on the first weekend of results around the SEC. The Bulldogs certainly have question marks on offense. However, the defense remains arguably the best in college football. On the Auburn sideline, Bo Nix looks primed to take a step forward in his sophomore campaign. The Tigers have one of the SEC’s top targets in Seth Williams, along with a talented cast of running backs and a solid defense to lean on. In order for Auburn to win, Nix has to be at his best, and the offensive line has to continue to progress and open up more lanes for the running game. Expect the two defenses to control the flow of the game. The guess here is neither offenses produces a lot of points, but Georgia finds a way to win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Georgia 24, Auburn 20
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