Auburn and Georgia enter the Deep South’s oldest rivalry with plenty at stake this Saturday. The Tigers ranked ninth in the second College Football Playoff selection committee top 25 and need a win to stay alive for a spot in the top four or a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl. At 5-4, the Bulldogs need one more win to get bowl eligible. Additionally, a win over Auburn would prevent a losing record in SEC play for Georgia for the first time since 2010.
Auburn enters Saturday’s game riding a six-game winning streak. The Tigers notched a 23-16 victory over Vanderbilt last Saturday, setting up a critical two-game stretch to end the 2016 season. If Auburn gets by Georgia this Saturday, the Iron Bowl matchup against rival Alabama will decide the winner of the SEC West and a spot in the conference championship game. It’s a tough obstacle to overcome, but if the Tigers win both games and the SEC title, coach Gus Malzahn’s team would be a playoff team. The turnaround for Malzahn’s team started with a last-second win over LSU and continued with impressive victories over Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Quarterback Sean White has settled into the role and provided stability for the offense, while the defense continues to rank among the best in the SEC.
First-year coach Kirby Smart has experienced his share of ups and downs in Athens this fall. The Bulldogs rallied to beat North Carolina in the opener but survived close calls against Nicholls and Missouri before losing four out of their next five games. Last week’s win over Kentucky helped stop the midseason slide for Smart’s team and moved Georgia one step closer to bowl eligibility. The expectations are high in Athens, so a 7-5 or 6-6 season wouldn’t sit well in the fanbase. However, Smart also didn’t inherit a full deck of talent to work with. The Bulldogs have a true freshman (Jacob Eason) at quarterback, a lack of proven options on the offensive line and a rebuilt defense.
Georgia holds a one-game lead in the all-time series against Auburn. The Bulldogs have won 56 matchups, while the Tigers have claimed 55. There have been eight ties in this series.
Auburn at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 12 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Auburn -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Auburn’s Ground Attack
The development and efficient play of quarterback Sean White has been instrumental to the improvement of Auburn’s offense, but the real reason for the surge is the ground game. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing, averaging nearly 300 yards (299.8 ypg) a contest. Additionally, Auburn averages 5.6 yards per carry and leads the conference by averaging 54 attempts per game. Bruising 240-pound running back Kamryn Pettway is the team’s leading rusher (1,106 yards), with Kerryon Johnson (616) inching back to 100 percent after an injury suffered against Arkansas. However, Johnson could be needed in a full-time role this Saturday, as Pettway is questionable due to an injury suffered in last week’s win over Vanderbilt. Pettway has eclipsed at least 169 yards in each of his last four games, but Johnson has been just as effective (4.9 ypc) and is running behind one of the SEC’s top offensive lines.
Georgia will counter the Auburn ground game with a front seven that ranks third in the SEC against the run. The Bulldogs limit opponents to 3.4 yards per carry and just under 120 yards (118.1 ypg) per contest. However, there’s a caveat to these numbers. Georgia hasn’t exactly faced the toughest of offenses so far in the SEC. Kentucky was able to generate 4.6 yards per rush last week, while Ole Miss posted 5.8 in September.
Georgia lineman Trent Thompson was nicked up in last week’s win over Kentucky but should be available for Saturday’s matchup. Thompson is a key cog against the run, and the Bulldogs will need a big game from linebackers Roquan Smith, Natrez Patrick, Devin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. Expect to see Auburn once again look to get its ground game established early and often. Will the Bulldogs win the battle in the trenches and force the Tigers into long-yardage situations?
2. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb
It’s no secret the strength of Georgia’s offense is at running back. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel form one of the nation’s top backfield tandems, as this duo has accumulated 1,178 yards and five scores through nine games. Chubb is returning from a serious leg injury suffered last season and has only one game of more than 100 yards (South Carolina) in SEC play in 2016. Michel is averaging more yards per carry (5.2) and posted his second 100-yard effort (127) against Kentucky last week. While neither player is having a huge statistical season, it’s tough to blame the running backs for the lack of production at times in the ground game. The Bulldogs have struggled to generate a push on the offensive line and averaged under four yards per rush in four SEC contests in 2016.
Auburn’s front seven is talented and deep, ranking fourth in the SEC (119.9 ypg) against the run. Ends Carl Lawson and Marlon Davidson have combined for 11 sacks in 2016, while tackles Montravius Adams (six tackles for a loss this year) and Dontravius Russell anchor the interior. Georgia’s offensive line has surrendered 19 sacks this season, so establishing the run is critical to easing the pressure on quarterback Jacob Eason. Similar to the first section, the battle in the trenches is worth monitoring. Will Georgia’s line generate a push to get Chubb and Michel on track? Or will Auburn’s front seven consistently win the battle in the trenches and limit the Bulldogs on the ground?
3. The Quarterbacks
Auburn’s passing attack isn't going to torch opposing defensive backfields for 300 yards each game, but the Tigers have been efficient and feeding off a potent ground attack. Quarterback Sean White missed the first half of last week’s win over Vanderbilt due to a shoulder injury and still finished with 106 passing yards and one score on 10 completions. White has connected on 69.1 percent of his throws for 1,617 yards and nine scores. The sophomore has tossed only two picks and has six completions of 40 yards or more. He should receive a boost this week, as top receiver Tony Stevens is slated to return after missing two games due to injury. Stevens is tied for the team lead in receptions (24) and averages 17 yards per catch. The Tigers will have additional support from Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton, Ryan Davis and Marcus Davis in the receiving corps. Although White is slated to start, will his shoulder injury put any limitations on the passing game? Can Georgia’s defense find a way to put this game on his arm?
On the other sideline, there’s a lot of hope about the future of Georgia football with Jacob Eason at the helm. The five-star freshman has passed for 1,754 yards and 11 scores in nine games and has not tossed an interception in three consecutive games. Eason’s favorite target has been Isaiah McKenzie (32 catches), but Terry Godwin (24) and tight end Isaac Nauta are two other weapons that will test Auburn’s secondary. Additionally, junior college recruit Javon Wims appears to be getting more comfortable with the offense, as he grabbed a season-high five catches for 90 yards in last week’s win over Kentucky. Auburn’s secondary ranks sixth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only 10 passing scores through nine games. The defensive backfield also has the support of a strong front seven to limit the time opposing quarterbacks have to throw in the pocket. If Georgia is going to pull off the upset, it has to start with Eason delivering a big performance against one of the SEC’s top defenses.
A rivalry game usually brings out the best in both teams. And it’s never easy for the favorite (Auburn) to go on the road and win in a tough environment during conference play. Georgia isn’t having its best season, but the Bulldogs should give the Tigers all they can handle. Auburn has not won in Athens since 2005 and suffered a couple of blowout losses in the process (34-7 in 2014 and 45-7 in 2011). Despite the recent trends in Athens, the Tigers are the better team and eventually find a way to pull this one out. Pettway could be limited or sidelined, but Johnson should do just enough on the ground to open up big passing plays for White. And when Auburn is on defense, expect this unit to stack the box and force Eason to win this one through the air. The Bulldogs put up a good fight, but the Tigers put this one away in the fourth quarter.