“We whipped the dog crap out of ’em, didn’t we!?”
Those are the words that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn uttered after taking down then undefeated No. 1 Georgia 40-17 at home just three weeks ago.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs and second-year coach Kirby Smart will have a chance to make Malzahn eat his words, get revenge on the Tigers and possibly earn a spot in the College Football Playoff when the two longtime rivals meet for the first time ever in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Since a mid-October collapse at LSU, Auburn has been arguably the hottest team in the nation, winning five games in a row, with two of the wins coming over the No. 1 teams in the country, including last week’s 26-14 upset victory over Alabama in the Iron Bowl to capture the SEC West.
For Georgia, the Bulldogs have positioned themselves to make a playoff appearance at 11-1 after a season of dominating lesser opponents behind a punishing run game and an even more unforgiving defense. Outside of the loss to Auburn and an early-season, one-point win at Notre Dame, Georgia has had it easy in every other game, winning by an average of 28.3 PPG.
This will be the seventh time in SEC Title Game history that there will be a rematch of teams that met in the regular season, with the regular season winner taking five out of the six previous matchups.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn – Malzahn said that the Tigers’ star running back will be a game-time decision after suffering a shoulder injury in the win over Alabama. Johnson was outstanding in his first meeting with the Dawgs, accounting for 233 total yards and a touchdown. If he can’t go, then it will be a definite advantage for Georgia.
Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia – Raise your hand if you would’ve thought that the true freshman would have the Bulldogs in this position at the start of the year. Yeah, not many. Fromm has been solid throughout the season, accounting for 22 total touchdowns and over 2,000 yards of total offense. He had a rough outing against Auburn in the first go-around, so look for him to perform better against the Tigers’ defense, which is a must if the ‘Dawgs want to open up the offense.
Jeff Holland, LB, Auburn – For Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s unit, Holland is the anchor. The junior has 11.5 tackles for loss on the season to go along with 8.5 sacks. After a solid game against Georgia in the first meeting, it will be key for its offensive line to contain Holland and the rest of the Auburn pass rush.
Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia – One of the SEC’s leading tacklers, Smith helps make up the solid foundation of a smothering Georgia defense. Auburn was able to easily figure them out a few weeks ago, however, to the tune of 488 total yards. Watch for Smith to be all over the field, attempting to help contain the Tigers’ explosive offensive attack.
This game should be a tighter contest than the one at Jordan-Hare just a few weeks back. The crowd for the inaugural Mercedes-Benz Stadium-hosted SEC Championship Game will have a red-and-black majority and that — combined with Georgia’s revenge factor and higher stakes — should give us a compelling contest.
One can argue that Auburn is the best team in the country at the moment with the momentum it has, but can the Tigers notch one more impressive win after handing Alabama one of the most disappointing losses of the Nick Saban era?
A lot will be riding on the success of quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the Tigers’ receiving corps — led by new school record-holder for receptions in a season in Ryan Davis — in this game, since it is unknown how much Johnson can contribute in the run game. Since the LSU loss, Stidham has completed 72.3 percent of his passes and just threw for 237 yards against a formidable ‘Bama secondary.
For Georgia, it is clear that it will have to reverse the fortune it had in the first meeting against the Tigers in the running game. The Dawgs could only muster 46 total yards, and the two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were held to 48 combined yards. The formula all year for offensive coordinator Jim Cheney has been opening up Fromm’s play-action game by constantly pounding defenses with Chubb, Michel, D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and more. Auburn’s front seven is nasty and aggressive, so Georgia may have to rely on Fromm a lot more early and often.
So, Georgia grinds you into dust, Auburn wears you out with speed and drains your stamina. What will give on Saturday?
This will be a much more entertaining bout this time around and with Johnson possibly being limited, the Tigers should be nervous, but Malzahn has been on this stage before with his championship pedigree. However, with this being the last chance for seniors Chubb and Michel to finish their careers with a title, look for a spirited performance from Georgia in front of the friendly crowd. It is also difficult to imagine the Bulldogs’ defense to be ripped to shreds once more.
There’s a feeling that this game turns into a surprising quarterback duel between Stidham and Fromm, and I bet Georgia’s defense is more than ready makes the necessary stops in order to end Auburn’s national title dreams in what should be an instant classic.
Georgia 28, Auburn 24