Yes, there is still life left in the Auburn Tigers. That was evident in Saturday’s improbable comeback over Texas A&M at Jordan-Hare.
Two touchdowns in the final five minutes of a game that looked like it was destined to go the Aggies’ way not only made Auburn bowl eligible for the sixth consecutive season under head coach Gus Malzahn, but also pumps some optimism in what could have been a disastrous situation had the result gone the other way.
“We’ve been talking all week about just playing Auburn football, the fight and the character and everything that goes with it,” Malzahn said after Saturday’s victory. “That’s really what defined the win for me. A lot of times how you win can help you moving forward. That will definitely give us momentum.”
It’s a much needed lift in what has been an up-and-down season to this point heading into a big game Between the Hedges against SEC East champion Georgia next Saturday. The No. 5 Bulldogs clinched a second consecutive division title with a win over Kentucky.
The two teams renew the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, a matchup that began in 1892 and has become an annual tradition since 1919. The Bulldogs have won 10 of the past 13 meetings and hold the overall edge 58-56-8.
Here are five keys to victory for Auburn in its hopes of upsetting the Bulldogs and winning in Athens for the first time since 2005.
1. QB Jarrett Stidham
The last five minutes Stidham, not the first 55 minutes Stidham. Turning him loose and letting it fly like he did in the comeback against Texas A&M just might be the way to go against the Bulldogs. This isn’t the normal way Auburn does things, but there’s no Kerryon Johnson to rush for 167 yards as he did in last year’s thrashing of the Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare.
You’ll remember in last year’s game at Jordan-Hare, Stidham completed 16-of-23 passes for 214 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also ran for another. It’s going to take at least that much to win on the road this season.
Granted, Georgia ranks second in the SEC against the pass (170 yards per game average), but Stidham is capable of doing just that as backed up by his credentials. In leading the comeback victory over Texas A&M, he recorded his fifth 200-yard passing game of the season (239) and 15th at Auburn while surpassing 5,000 and moving into sixth place on the Tigers’ all-time passing list with 5,111 yards. Keep in mind, this is just his second season on campus.
He’s the fastest player in Auburn history to reach 5,000 passing yards (23 games), accomplishing the feat in one fewer game than Pat Sullivan. Stidham is also the sixth player in Auburn history with 400 career completions.
So, lacking a viable running game, it will be up to Stidham to open up the Georgia defense with the pass and then hopefully the run game will follow.
2. Pressure Georgia QB Jake Fromm
In last year’s regular-season victory, the Tigers sacked Fromm 4 times. In Georgia’s only loss so far this season, LSU harassed the Bulldogs’ QB, also sacked him 4 times, and took him out of his game.
Four sacks could be the magic number that gives Auburn the advantage. For the season, Georgia has allowed just 13 sacks, or 1.44 per game on average. The Tigers are second in the SEC with 29 total sacks, or an average of 3.22 per game. Only Alabama, with 31 sacks (3.44 average) has more.
So that number isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and sophomore DL Nick Coe has been on fire as of late. The team leader by a wide margin, Coe now has seven sacks on the season and will be a key factor on Saturday.
3. Line play
The Tigers held Georgia to 46 rushing yards last season at Jordan-Hare, the fewest by Georgia in the series since at least 1967, and it will take another Herculean like effort from the defensive front to hold back the Bulldogs on Saturday.
A much-maligned offensive line will be key as well in giving Stidham time to find open receivers as well as opening holes for the run game.
It will be critical for Auburn to hold its own in the trenches on both sides of the football if they have any hope of pulling the upset.
4. Scoring first
Scoring first has been a winning formula for the Tigers in the Malzahn era. Auburn has scored first in 23 of the past 27 games, including seven times this season. It has played a bigger role than some might think. The Tigers are 39-13 under Malzahn when scoring first.
5. Win the turnover battle
Sounds easy enough, but this statistic has proven crucial for the Tigers. In last year’s game with the Bulldogs at Auburn, the Tigers came up with the only turnover of the game, a fumble recovery.
And in the four games in which Auburn has won the turnover battle, the Tigers are a perfect 4-0.
So taking care of the football and coming up with big defensive plays are going to play a major role in the outcome of Saturday’s game.