Auburn can't play much better in rematch, Georgia can't play much worse
It was less than three weeks ago when then-No. 1 Georgia went into Jordan-Hare Stadium and got trucked 40-17 by then-No. 10 Auburn.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they already had the East wrapped up at the time and will still be there Saturday for the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers went on to beat then-No. 1 Alabama two weeks later to claim the West.
Now 10-2 Auburn checks in at No. 2 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, while 11-1 Georgia — that loss on The Plains is the only blemish on its résumé — is No. 6. Presumably, whoever wins the rematch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will make the Final Four and keep hopes very much alive for a national championship.
That being said, the Tigers dominated the Bulldogs pretty much from beginning to end, so why should we expect a different result?
For one thing, Auburn won’t have the luxury of playing in its own backyard. While the trip to Atlanta is only a little more than 100 miles, that’s 50 percent longer than it is from Athens. The crowd will be evenly split, too.
The Tigers were 7-0 at home during the regular season — average margin of victory? 24.4 points — but just 3-2 on the road. They were defeated 14-6 by defending national champ Clemson in Week 2, and then they got upended 27-23 by division rival LSU in Week 7. Worse still, they actually led that game 20-0 early in the second quarter.
Additionally, Auburn played so well against both Georgia and Alabama, asking for a repeat performance almost seems unfair.
Not to mention the fact that the country has turned the page on the Bulldogs much too quickly. Let’s not forget that they were justifiably atop the original CFP rankings and a perfect 9-0 before getting tamed by the Tigers.
A buzzsaw was thrown at coach Kirby Smart and Co. On offense, his tailbacks weren’t able to protect — mostly due to Auburn’s front seven — true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. On defense, Jarrett Stidham didn’t make many mistakes through the air and Kerryon Johnson looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate on the ground.
Two teams playing each other twice in the same season is rare at the collegiate level, but you can bet that Smart has learned a thing or two.
More than anything, Georgia needs to be much more sound along the offensive line. The only two times that Fromm was really challenged this season, the narrow escape at Notre Dame and the L at Auburn, he threw the ball 29 and 28 times, respectively.
Compare that to wins over Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky — all double-digit victories in conference play — when he took to the air an average of 15.3 times. Fromm is sixth nationally in efficiency rating at 167.2, but less is more in this passing game.
Nick Chubb (below) and Sony Michel must run the ball effectively, plus the Bulldogs have to limit Johnson’s many talents.
“I don’t think it’s possible for them to make as many mistakes, both physically and mentally, that they made the first time around against Auburn,” CBS Sports play-by-play man Brad Nessler said Wednesday via conference call.
There were gaffes offensively, defensively and on special teams. Smart didn’t manage the clock as well as he could have, either. The cool, calm and collected Georgia squad we’d seen the previous two months didn’t show up that day.
“I don’t think anybody could have handled that beatdown better than Kirby handled it,” CBS Sports analyst Gary Danielson said. “Especially with (Tigers coach) Gus (Malzahn) saying we beat the dog out of them.”
After Auburn did what it did to the Bulldogs, it was more of the same against Alabama. Johnson ran it, caught it and even threw it — he completed a Tim Tebow-like jump pass to receiver Nate Craig-Myers for a 3-yard touchdown — like an All-American. Conversely, the Crimson Tide were a shell of the club that had sprinted out to 11-0.
“That’s the common thread I think between Alabama and Georgia,” Nessler said. “I don’t think Alabama and Georgia could have played any worse than they played against Auburn, and I’m not sure Auburn can play any better than they did against Georgia and Alabama.”
Fortunately for the Tigers, defense tends to travel. Their tackles, ends and linebackers are as deep and dangerous as any in the land.
“If the Georgia offensive line cannot handle the Auburn defensive line, the same issues might start to pop up,” Danielson said. “That’s the frustration we saw by Alabama. It looked to me like they felt they couldn’t block them and they tried to finesse them, and I think Georgia could have the same problems.”
If Auburn gets past Georgia again, then Malzahn and Co. should be the first two-loss program to get an invitation to the Playoff in its four-year history. They’re playing as well as anyone, but the Bulldogs have extra motivation.
“I don’t think anyone wants to play Auburn right now,” Nessler said, “but I think Georgia does. If Auburn makes the Playoff, I don’t think anybody wants a piece of them. But I think Georgia does.”
This is only Year 2 for Smart between the hedges — his alma mater, by the way — so it’s nothing short of amazing that he has his roster in this position already. Still, they lacked the discipline and focus necessary to overcome an equally talented opponent like the Tigers, especially on the road in a hostile environment.
“Georgia looked like they were in a daze,” Danielson said, “that they had never been on the big stage before, and they didn’t handle it well. Well, that was a dress rehearsal. Now they got another chance.”
Luckily, Round 1 was essentially a Mulligan for Georgia. The Bulldogs lost that battle, but they can still win the war.