Those who were at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2017 remember it well, and those who weren’t have been told all about it.
The Georgia Bulldogs arrived as the nation’s No. 1 team, undefeated and already crowned SEC Eastern Division champions. Auburn was saddled with two losses but carrying the respect from the College Football Playoff committee with a No. 10 ranking.
The Tigers had another thing going for them: Their fan base was frothing at the thought of their boys toppling the nation’s top team in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
The Auburn faithful got their wish and played no small part in making it come true. In one of the loudest environments Georgia players said they ever encountered, the Bulldogs succumbed to the noise and the pressure in what ended as a 40-17 blowout.
“I just remember it being really loud there, the atmosphere was wild,” said nose guard Michael Barnett, now a senior with the Bulldogs. “I know that played a big part in us taking that loss.”
Said Georgia sophomore offensive lineman Cade Mays: “I’ve never been there nor have I played there. But I’ve heard that it’s a crazy atmosphere, that it might be the best in the country.”
The last visit came Nov. 11, 2017. Of course, the Bulldogs got the last laugh that season when the teams met in a rematch in the SEC Championship game.
Two years later, the Bulldogs will arrive to almost the exactly same scenario. No. 4-ranked Georgia (8-1, 5-1 SEC) comes in with the higher ranking and presumably more to lose. This time it needs to win just to punch its ticket to the SEC Championship game as Eastern Division champions.
But No. 12 Auburn (7-2, 4-2) has some things to play for as well. Its losses both came on the road to top-10 teams, including a three-point defeat at No. 1 LSU. The Tigers also have a neutral-site win over No. 6 Oregon under their belt.
“Tremendous program, tremendous football team,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who has faced Auburn every year he’s been an FBS coach. “They’ve got two really tough losses in which they played two really good football teams and played them right down to the wire.”
Heading into virtually identical circumstances two years later, how can Georgia hope for a different result this time?
By not feeding the frenzy.
“Yeah, the atmosphere at Auburn is extremely electric, but there were also things we could’ve done better in that game,” Barnett said.
Indeed, there were. Among them:
• Georgia was flagged for four personal fouls – a couple of which wiped out positive plays – on the way to committing seven penalty for 75 yards.
• Trailing 16-7, Georgia’s Mecole Hardman muffed a punt that led to an Auburn touchdown early in the third quarter.
• Quarterback Jake Fromm was sacked four times, pressured twice that many and missed open receivers on a 13-of-28 passing night.
• The Bulldogs managed only 46 yards rushing.
With each misstep and gaffe, the Auburn crowd got louder and more excited. The result was 30 consecutive points before and a long Rodrigo Blankenship field goal, and a meaningless Georgia touchdown with 2:17 to play set the final score.
“They do a tremendous job,” said Smart, who has visited Jordan-Hare more than any SEC stadium. “I mean, I would assume everybody feels that way that goes there and plays, not just an Alabama or a Georgia coach. Those are two of their biggest rivalries, but I would assume it’s like that for everybody, because they sell out their crowd just like our guys do.
“It’s loud. They've got a really impactful home field and home crowd, and this is probably their biggest home game of the year so far. So, I know they’ll be ripping and raring to go.”
The chief difference this time around is that Auburn is not nearly the offensive power it was in 2017. The Tigers are starting a freshman at quarterback in Bo Nix, who ranks 10th in the league in pass efficiency (128.5) and has not not played particularly well in the biggest games. But Auburn still runs the ball efficiently and, at 32.7 points per game, isn’t far behind Georgia (33.7) in scoring.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs come in with a defense that leads the SEC and ranks in the top 5 nationally in scoring allowed (10.1 ppg), yards allowed (260.3 pg) and rushing allowed (74.6 ypg). Georgia remains on the only team in all ranks of college football to have not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, a fact of which the run-oriented Tigers no doubt have taken note.
Conversely, the Tigers feature arguably the best defensive line in the league. Starters Big Kat Bryant (6-foot-5, 247 pounds), Marlon Davidson (6-3, 278) and Derrick Brown (6-5, 318) -- all heavily recruited by Georgia – have proved to be a match-up nightmare for every opponent this season. Brown and Bryant have combined for three fumble recoveries for 136 yards in returns, or an average of 45.33 yards each.
Georgia will counter with one of the best offensive lines in football, but one that has been ravaged by ankle injuries of late. At this point, the availability of starting center Trey Hill, who left the Missouri game with a left ankle sprain, is the only one in question.
The Bulldogs’ linemen vow to be ready.
“Every practice we’re playing against some of the best D-linemen in the country,” Mays said. “So being able to take those reps against those guys gets you ready against anything you’re going to see on Saturday.”
The chief difference in this year’s matchup and that one two years ago is the Bulldogs need a win to clinch the SEC East. They already had that ticket in their pocket in 2017, so there was margin for error.
And while Georgia could still make it to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a win over Texas A&M the following week, a defeat at Auburn surely will wreck any shot at a College Football Playoff berth.
That’s a thought the Tigers surely relish. While they got that win the last time Georgia visited, they haven’t gotten many lately. The Bulldogs have dominated the series recently, winning seven of the past nine, including twice on the Plains. One of those two losses remains known as “the Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” and it was.
“It's good to be back home and, boy, it feels comfortable at home,” Auburn receiver Seth Williams told reporters. “As an offense, we're hoping to put up a bunch of numbers.”
What never changes is the atmosphere that awaits Georgia there. The place will be rocking Saturday, as always. Which is the way the Bulldogs say they like it.
“Electrifying,” senior J.R. Reed said. “I love playing there. It’s amazing. It’s always fun. I know our offense might not like it because it’s so loud, but I love going into enemy territory like that.”
Said Smart: “It’s loud. But, I mean, when we go to Tennessee, it’s loud. When we go on the road and play in the SEC, it’s loud. Auburn is one of those places that brings the environment that you expect in the SEC.”
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