Georgia coach Kirby Smart had to walk the fine line of acknowledging Auburn’s obvious advantage at Jordan-Hare Stadium while not making too big of a deal out of it.
“They’ve got a really impactful home field and home crowd, and this is probably their biggest home game of the year so far,” Smart said during his news conference in Athens. “So, I know they’ll be ripping and raring to go. But when we go to Tennessee, it’s loud. When we go on the road and play in the SEC, it’s loud.”
Can’t blame Smart for downplaying what’s waiting for No. 4 Georgia (8-1) at No. 12 Auburn (7-2). Why add to the list of worries by feeding the crowd noise narrative? Plus, there’s no need for him to build it up. Many of his players already know what’s coming.
The Bulldogs were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and favored by 2-1/2 points when they traveled to play two-loss Auburn in 2017. They had a team seemingly built for big road games. Tailback terrors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to move the chains; star linebacker Roquan Smith to anchor a defense that had allowed little over nine games.
Georgia got whipped, 40-17. The Bulldogs fumbled away a punt return and had two costly personal foul penalties. They were flustered, senior defensive tackle Michael Barnett acknowledged this week.
“I just remember it being really loud there (and) the atmosphere was wild,” Barnett told reporters in Athens. “I know that played a big part in us taking that loss. With that said, there were also things we could’ve done better in that game."
The Bulldogs had some margin for error in that meeting. They knew that a loss probably wouldn’t end their aspirations for a national championship. That’s how it turned out: Georgia won a rematch against Auburn in the SEC Championship game before losing to Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship game.
This time, Georgia must beat Auburn to remain in the CFP race. It’s reasonable to believe things will be different for Georgia when it faces this two-loss Auburn team. Then again, the 2017 Bulldogs were better this year’s version. That home loss to South Carolina looks worse by the week.
The biggest obstacle for Georgia is Auburn’s defense. It’s elite, as usual. Georgia’s offense is just OK. Auburn’s offense also is so-so, which has become another norm. Georgia’s defense is even better than Auburn’s, but takeaways haven’t been plentiful for the Bulldogs.
That ties into Auburn’s home advantage. It’s not just that the crowd noise could get to Georgia again. It’s also that playing at home could be a big boost for Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix.
He played poorly during the loss at Florida and wasn’t quite good enough at LSU. Nix will get his shot at the Bulldogs in Jordan-Hare. He’s been better there, albeit against lesser competition.
“It's completely different when you’re playing at home,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said during a news conference. “You can hear a lot better. You can operate a lot better. The clock issues running down (are) not the same. I think that’s a real positive when we’re playing at home, specifically for (Nix).”
No doubt, Georgia’s defense is the best Nix will face. It’s built on the typical Smart template. Georgia is very strong against the run: 2.8 yards average per rush, tops in the SEC, with zero rushing TDs allowed. The Bulldogs limit big plays: No. 2 in FBS in opponent drives that average 10 yards per play, according to Football Outsiders.
But Georgia’s “havoc” plays have tailed off. That’s sacks, tackle for losses, pass break-ups, interceptions and forced fumbles. During the spring, Smart set a goal of havoc plays on 20 percent of defense snaps. The Bulldogs were at 25 percent after playing Vanderbilt, Murray State and Arkansas State.
The schedule stiffened from there. Now the Bulldogs are down to havoc plays on 19 percent of opponent plays. For the season they’ve forced 1.1 turnovers per game, ranked next-to-last in the SEC.
By contrast, Auburn’s defense has forced nearly two turnovers per game. It has allowed 3.3 yards per rush, third-best in the SEC. The Tigers have been vulnerable to big plays, especially against the pass. But they held LSU’s league-best offense to season-lows of 5.8 yards per play and 23 points.
Georgia’s offense rates well behind LSU’s, especially in big-play production, and now will face the best defense it’s seen this season. Against Missouri and Florida, two good defensive teams, the Bulldogs did what they wanted in the middle of the field. They bogged down once in scoring position.
I’m not trying to shortchange Georgia. Quarterback Jake Fromm can make winning plays against Auburn, like he did last season in Athens, and he surely won’t get the Bulldogs beat. Georgia is capable of winning on the strength of defense, a few big runs by D’Andre Swift and long-range kicking by Rodrigo Blankenship.
The Bulldogs are worthy favorites. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 54 percent chance of winning. Bill Connelly's SP+ favors Georgia by five points. As of Tuesday afternoon, the consensus line at Las Vegas sportsbooks was Georgia -3. ESPN's Football Power Index dissents and gives Auburn a 52.6 percent chance to win.
I like the Bulldogs to win. But there’s a real chance they get ambushed at Auburn, just like in 2017.