For the second time this season, Auburn and Georgia are set to meet on the gridiron, but the stakes and implications of Saturday’s matchup in the 26th SEC Championship Game are significantly higher than the first contest between these two teams. In this week’s release of the CFB Playoff rankings, Auburn ranked No. 2 and Georgia checked in at No. 6. While a lot of games and scenarios are in play for Championship Saturday, there’s no doubt the winner of this SEC Championship showdown is in the CFB Playoff.
Auburn dominated Georgia in the first meeting between these two teams, and coach Gus Malzahn’s squad hopes to ride the momentum for one more victory and its first trip to the CFB Playoff. The Tigers crushed the Bulldogs 40-17 on Nov. 11 and beat Alabama 26-14 in the Iron Bowl to claim the SEC West title last Saturday. Since a 27-23 loss at LSU on Oct. 14, Malzahn’s team has been playing at a different level. The Tigers have scored at least 40 points in four out of their last five games and have not allowed an opponent to eclipse more than 20 points in that span. Considering the margin of victory against Georgia and Alabama, Malzahn’s team might be playing the best football of any team in the nation.
In addition to the conference title and CFB Playoff berth, Georgia is out for revenge on Saturday. The Bulldogs played their worst game of the year against Auburn on Nov. 11, as the offense generated only 46 rushing yards, and the defense gave up 40 points (the most this group has allowed in 2017). Coach Kirby Smart clearly has this program on the right path (and probably ahead of schedule) in his second year at the helm. And a win over Auburn and berth in the CFB Playoff would only add to the overall trajectory of this program. With a loss on Saturday, Georgia isn't likely to fall out of the top 10 in the final rankings and would be in line for a berth in a New Year's Six bowl.
Georgia holds a 57-56-8 series edge over Auburn. The Bulldogs have won five out of the last seven in this series.
Auburn vs. Georgia (Atlanta – SEC Championship)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Auburn -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Georgia’s Rushing Attack
Whether or not Georgia wins on Saturday is likely to rest on how well its rushing attack performs. In the first meeting between these two teams, the Bulldogs only managed 46 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries. Running back Nick Chubb was held to 27 yards, while Sony Michel only managed 21 yards on nine carries. The 46 overall yards and production by Chubb and Michel was a significant drop off from Georgia’s usual totals. The Bulldogs average 265.7 yards a game and have scored 35 times on the ground this season.
Simply, less than 100 rushing yards isn’t going to get it done for Georgia on Saturday afternoon. In 12 regular season games, the Bulldogs were held to less than 200 rushing yards in just two contests.
Can the Georgia offensive line and ground attack find a way to churn out yardage on first downs against an Auburn defense limiting opponents to just 125.9 yards a game? In last week’s win over Alabama, the Tigers gave up 211 yards and a score on 38 carries. Alabama’s offensive line is a better overall group than Georgia’s front five, which certainly helped the Crimson Tide find running lanes against coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense. However, last week's performance should give the Bulldogs some confidence about their ground game and establishing it on early downs after struggling in the first matchup.
Considering the firepower on the other sideline, establishing the run and keeping Auburn’s offense off the field is essential. The Bulldogs can’t afford to get into long-yardage situations all night and ask quarterback Jake Fromm to win this one through the air.
Which side wins out? Is it the one-two punch of Chubb and Michel? Or will Auburn’s defense dominate once again in the trenches?
2. The Quarterbacks
In the first meeting between these two teams, it was a one-sided affair in terms of quarterback play. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham connected on 16 of 23 throws for 214 yards and three touchdowns and added a score on the ground. Georgia’s Jake Fromm was hindered by a few dropped passes but completed 13 of 28 throws for 184 yards and a touchdown.
Even though Fromm has been the starter for nearly all of 2017, Georgia isn’t equipped to win high-scoring games. Instead, this offense needs to establish the run and allow Fromm to attempt 20-25 passes, with some play-action mixed in on favorable downs. The story is a little different on the other sideline, as Stidham is making a run at first-team All-SEC honors. The Baylor transfer has posted a strong first season on the Plains, throwing for 2,682 yards and 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Additionally, he’s connected on 17 passes of 40 or more yards in 2017. Stidham is surrounded by a solid group of receivers – including Ryan Davis (69 catches) and Darius Slayton (25.5 ypc) – which figure to test a Georgia secondary ranked fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. The Bulldogs haven't played a tough slate of quarterbacks, but Missouri and Auburn - the top passing teams on the schedule - both eclipsed 250 yards against this secondary. If Auburn's line can protect, there are plays to be made downfield.
As mentioned in the previous section, Georgia has to do a better job of running the ball in this matchup. But Fromm could alleviate some of the pressure on the ground attack by hitting on some early throws to loosen up the front seven of Auburn. Will Fromm perform better against this defense after struggling in the first matchup? And when Stidham has the ball, can he continue to connect on a few deep passes a game, limit the mistakes and distribute the ball to playmakers on the outside? Stidham's play in recent weeks could be especially important due to...
3. Auburn’s Ground Game
The biggest uncertainty surrounding Saturday afternoon’s game is the health of Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson. In last week’s win over Alabama, Johnson left the game due to a shoulder injury and is questionable to play on Saturday. The junior has rushed for 1,276 yards and 17 touchdowns this year and posted more than 100 yards in each of his last four games. In the first meeting against Georgia, Johnson gashed the Bulldogs for 167 on the ground and caught two passes for 66 yards and a touchdown.
If Johnson is sidelined, sophomore Kam Martin (409 yards and two touchdowns) will get the call as the starter. And even if Johnson is able to go, he could be limited in terms of overall volume he can handle.
Regardless of Johnson’s status, Georgia has to do a better job against the run than it did in the first matchup on Nov. 11. The Bulldogs’ rush defense ranks second in the SEC by limiting opponents to just 112.5 yards per game on the ground. In last week’s win over Alabama, Auburn’s offense converted 9 of 18 third-down attempts. Can Georgia find a way to stop Johnson, Martin and the read plays by Stidham to get the Tigers into third-and-long situations? If so, that’s a win for the Bulldogs.
It’s never easy defeating an opponent two times in a season. Adding to Auburn’s challenge was a physical contest against Alabama last week, along with the emotions that come with a rivalry matchup. Despite those factors working against coach Gus Malzahn’s team, the Tigers are still the team to beat in this game. Even if Johnson is limited, Stidham and the passing attack won’t be easy for Georgia to contain, and Martin is a capable fill-in at running back. The Bulldogs have to establish the run and win the battle up front on defense in order to have a shot. Georgia keeps it closer this time, but Stidham continues his strong late-season play by hitting a couple of key passes in the second half to earn the victory.