There are so many storylines swirling around the 118th renewal of the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” between Georgia and Auburn on Saturday night at Sanford Stadium. You can start with the fact that these teams have played 117 times since 1892 and only one game separates them as the Tigers lead the all-time series 55-54-8.
But then there’s this:
- Tailback Todd Gurley will play for the Bulldogs for the first time since being suspended on Oct. 9 for breaking NCAA rules.
- Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall will play between the hedges for the first time since he was a backup cornerback for the Bulldogs three years ago.
- UGA will be hosting a home game on its campus for the first time in six weeks.
- And then it’s the one-year anniversary of “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” a play that turned one of Georgia’s greatest comebacks in school history — from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to one up — into one of the school’s most agonizing defeats on Auburn’s 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds remaining.
But the biggest storyline of Saturday night involves neither individuals nor venues. With a victory over its oldest rival, Georgia could possibly punch its ticket to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game.
“This is our last SEC game,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “I think there are a lot of factors as far as Todd coming back and what happened last year. But the thing we’re focusing most on is Atlanta. That’s kind of right in front of us.”
The first part of that equation for doing that is hard enough — defeating a ninth-ranked and highly motivated Auburn squad that has SEC title-game scenarios of its own. But if the 15th-ranked Bulldogs (7-2, 5-2 SEC) can somehow pull it off, they need only for Missouri to lose one of its final three games to be crowned SEC East champions for the third time in the past four seasons.
Missouri is a 3 1/2-point underdog in a road game against Texas A&M that kicks off 15 minutes after the Georgia-Auburn game begins.
“There are a lot of different headlines you can go with for this one,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “But none of those things really come to mind for me. We’ve just got to handle business to where we can at least keep our hopes alive of getting back to Atlanta. We know we’re still going to need some help, but I kind of like the odds.”
Thanks to three road games, a bye week and the annual neutral-site affair with Florida in Jacksonville, Georgia hasn’t played at home since Oct. 4, when it defeated Vanderbilt 44-17.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs also haven’t played host to Auburn since Nov. 12, 2011, when Nick Marshall was still a Georgia defensive back. When the SEC had to reorganize its expanded conference schedule to accommodate Missouri and Texas A&M, it needed Georgia to play Auburn two years in a row at Jordan-Hare Stadium in order to keep the South’s longest-running series intact.
But that’s not what has had social media all atwitter. That would be the return of Gurley.
Ever since the star tailback’s Heisman-worthy season was shut down because he accepted $3,000 to sign memorabilia, UGA’s students and a goodly segment of the Bulldog Nation launched into a “Free Gurley” campaign. They felt Gurley was wronged to be suspended for one game, much less four. So they’re particular motivated to see Gurley “set free” against an archrival in the most meaningful game of the year.
“RELEASE THE B3AST” is the latest phrase they’ve coined.
But Georgia coach Mark Richt doesn’t want to hear any of that. He has worked overtime to downplay the Gurley angle. For him, Saturday needs to be all about the contest at hand, which will take the Bulldogs’ full and total attention.
“I want everybody to be excited about Todd being back,” Richt said. “I am and the rest of the team is and the staff is. But let’s focus on the game; let’s focus on Georgia.”
There’s plenty to keep their attention right there. This game, as always, is about championships. Traditionally, Auburn is the Bulldogs’ final SEC opponent. So if there are any titles to be won or played for, Georgia has to beat the Tigers to do it.
“Forever and ever, the championship was riding on this game,” former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley said. “We had to beat them six times (to win the SEC), and five of them happened to be at Auburn. Traditionally, there’s always something riding on it.”