The Bulldogs and Tigers meet in Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is one of college football’s must-see matchups for Week 11, as Auburn looks to keep its SEC West title hopes alive with a victory over No. 1 Georgia. The Tigers are also out to enact revenge on their rival. Auburn was a 10-point favorite and entered the matchup riding a six-game winning streak in Athens last season. However, the Bulldogs held the Tigers to just 164 total yards and seven points in a 13-7 upset.
For the second week in a row, Georgia claimed the top spot in the CFB Playoff rankings. The back-to-back No. 1 rank in the selection committee’s top 25 is the first time under coach Kirby Smart that the Bulldogs have reached this level. Smart clearly has this program headed in the right direction in terms of on-field production, and the outlook for Georgia continues to trend up with standout recruiting classes. Despite losing starting quarterback Jacob Eason to a knee injury for a couple of games, true freshman Jake Fromm kept the offense on track and guided the Bulldogs to a 20-19 win over Notre Dame earlier this year. Fromm played well enough to maintain the No. 1 job when Eason returned, with Smart’s team continuing to lean on a standout running game and defense to the No. 1 ranking. Thanks to last week’s win over South Carolina and Kentucky’s loss to Ole Miss, Georgia claimed the SEC East title and will play in Atlanta on Dec. 2.
Over the first three years of the CFB Playoff, a two-loss team has never finished in the final four. But that could change in 2017. Auburn is 7-2 through nine matchups, with its only losses coming to Clemson (14-6) and LSU (27-23) after blowing a huge first-half lead. The Tigers checked in at No. 10 in this week’s edition and will have at least two marquee games left on their resume. In addition to Saturday’s game versus Georgia, Auburn still has to play Alabama. If the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide and knock off the Bulldogs, a rematch against Georgia in the SEC Championship could decide a playoff spot. That’s a ways off for coach Gus Malzahn’s team, but the opportunity is there if this team can win out and finish 11-2 with a SEC title.
Georgia holds a 57-55-8 series edge over Auburn. The Bulldogs have won five out of the last six in this series.
Georgia at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Georgia -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
As with any big-time matchup, the quarterbacks are going to be critical to the outcome. But this game features an interesting battle and slight contrast in styles between two first-year starters in the SEC.
Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham started his career at Baylor in 2015 and became the starter after a season-ending injury to Seth Russell in late October. Stidham completed 59.2 percent of his passes for 1,526 yards and 13 scores in 10 appearances that year but left the program after Art Briles was dismissed prior to the 2016 season. Stidham spent last year at a junior college and did not participate in a football program. As expected, the sophomore won the starting job over Sean White this offseason and passed for 1,996 yards and 11 scores through the first nine games of the year.
Stidham is accurate (66.8 percent), has enough mobility to slide around in the pocket or scramble and brings the big arm that the offense lacked in 2016. The sophomore has connected on 17 throws of 30 yards or more this season, with 15 coming in SEC play. It’s hard to find a weakness on Georgia’s defense, but the secondary – as evidenced against Missouri – can be vulnerable (at times) to big plays on the back end. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, but Auburn is the best passing offense this unit has faced in 2017. When Stidham throws, Ryan Davis (48 catches), Darius Slayton (30.9 ypc on 13 receptions), Will Hastings and Eli Stove are the top targets. Can this unit and Stidham connect on big plays downfield? Just how important will a good game from Stidham be on Saturday? In Auburn’s two losses, the sophomore only completed 22 of 50 throws for 244 yards and a 44 percent completion rate.
On the other sideline, Georgia’s Jake Fromm has been the SEC’s top freshman in 2017. Jacob Eason opened the year as the starter but suffered a knee injury against Appalachian State that sidelined him for a couple of weeks. While Eason was on the mend, Fromm staked his claim for the starting job and never looked back. The true freshman is completing 63.3 percent of his throws for 1,459 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s tossed only four picks on 150 attempts and has 13 completions of 30 yards or more.
Georgia’s offensive success this year has largely rested on its ground game and offensive line. Fromm isn’t asked to put it in the air a lot, as he has yet to top 30 pass attempts in a game and has only one game of more than 205 passing yards. The Bulldogs don’t need Fromm to throw for 300 yards to win on Saturday. However, with Auburn likely to load up against the run, can the true freshman hit on enough throws to keep the defense off the line of scrimmage and make a couple of key connections on third downs? So far, Fromm has aced every test since taking over the starting job, which includes a win over Notre Dame in South Bend. Saturday afternoon is his biggest test within the SEC since taking over as the starter.
2. Georgia’s Rushing Attack
The unquestioned strength of Georgia’s offense is its rushing attack. The Bulldogs lead the SEC by averaging 279.3 rushing yards per game. The one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at running back is as good as any tandem in college football. Chubb leads the team with 867 yards, with Michel a close second at 710. These two have plenty of additional help in the form of D’Andre Swift (388 yards), Elijah Holyfield (227) and Brian Herrien (184). In addition a deep and talented stable of running backs, Georgia has benefited from better offensive line play this year. Assistant Sam Pittman is one of the best offensive line coaches in college football, and the development of the five starters in the trenches is a big reason why the Bulldogs average 5.8 yards per rush.
It’s no secret what Georgia wants to do on offense. The Bulldogs want to establish the run, keep the down and distance manageable for Fromm and prevent third-and-long situations. If Chubb and Michael are consistently churning out yardage, Fromm won’t have to win this game on his right arm and can take shots on favorable downs with play action.
While Georgia’s gameplan or blueprint on offense has been successful all year, it will meet some resistance on Saturday in the form of Auburn’s defense. The Tigers rank fourth in the SEC versus the run, limiting opponents to 126.4 yards per game through nine contests. The Tigers are allowing just 3.3 yards per rush and no opponent has eclipsed 175 rushing yards against this defense. Coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense is led by an active group of linebackers, including leading tackler Deshaun Davis and junior Darrell Williams. Additionally, the sophomore tandem of Derrick Brown (tackle) and end Marlon Davidson anchor the defensive line, with hybrid edge Jeff Holland (11 tackles for a loss) creating plenty of havoc around the line of scrimmage.
Can Auburn’s defense slow Georgia’s ground game and force this offense into long-yardage situations? Keeping Chubb and Michel in check and forcing Fromm to win through the air is the No. 1 priority and key to victory for Steele’s defense on Saturday.
3. Georgia’s Front Seven
Alabama ranks as the SEC’s best defense by limiting opponents to 9.8 points per game, but Georgia isn’t far behind at 11.7 a contest. While the defense certainly wasn’t bad in Smart’s debut last fall, it has made major strides in 2017. The Bulldogs hold opponents to just 4.2 yards per play, allow only 89 rushing yards a game and have surrendered three plays of 40 yards or more.
The strength of Georgia’s defense is clearly its front seven, which will have a major impact on how Saturday’s game plays out. While Auburn’s improved passing attack is a key storyline to watch, the Tigers are still one of the SEC’s best on the ground. Malzahn’s offense is averaging 236.7 rushing yards per game and is recording 5.02 yards per rush. Running back Kerryon Johnson leads the team with 868 yards and 15 touchdowns and has eclipsed at least 115 rushing yards in four out of the last five games. Auburn’s offensive line has shuffled its starting lineup a couple of times in 2017, but this group has been solid.
Georgia can counter with a front seven that is one of the deepest in the SEC. The Bulldogs have yet to allow a 200-yard rusher and are giving up just 3.1 yards per carry. Linebackers Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter anchor this group, with junior Trenton Thompson leading the trenches. In order for Georgia to keep Auburn’s offense in check, it has to win the battle up front. Additionally, maintaining discipline and the edge will be key. The Tigers use a lot of fakes and motion, which are designed to get defenders out of place and help the offense win one-on-one battles in space. Stopping Johnson is priority No. 1, but the front seven also needs to generate pressure on Stidham. Generating pressure hasn’t exactly been a strength for Georgia this season. Through nine games, the Bulldogs have only 17 sacks. This group needs to be more active at the line of scrimmage on Saturday.
This game isn’t short on intrigue and should be one of the better matchups in Week 11. Auburn’s offense has to find a way to get Johnson going against the tough Georgia front, allowing the passing attack to take a few chances downfield on favorable down and distance. When the Bulldogs have the ball, establishing the run could be a challenge against Auburn’s defense. The Tigers want to force Fromm to win this game – something he hasn’t had to do on the road in an SEC matchup in 2017. The home crowd and explosive offense are two factors to like an Auburn upset. However, Georgia’s defense keeps the Tigers in check, with Fromm making a couple of key throws to help the Bulldogs remain unbeaten.