At Georgia, things are as good as they’ve been since Vince Dooley’s day. The Bulldogs remained No. 1 in the College Football Playoff poll for a second consecutive week, they’ve clinched the SEC East title, they’re blowing out opponents, and they’re on track for their first run at a national championship since the early 1980s.
Of course, they still have a few obstacles to overcome, and one of them arrives this week in the form of a trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium to face Auburn, ranked No. 10 in the AP Top 25. Outside of a trip to Atlanta to ostensibly face AP No. 1 Alabama, there’s not a tougher remaining game for the Bulldogs than the Deep South’s longest-running rivalry.
Because Auburn is the kind of team built to beat Georgia, especially in a stadium that can be as eardrum-splitting as any in the SEC. The Tigers feature a running game and a defense that on its best days looks very much like the team Auburn will see across the line of scrimmage on Saturday. And the home team has an advantage in the kind of elite quarterback who’s given Georgia trouble at times this season.
South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and Missouri’s Drew Lock showed some hints of where Georgia can be vulnerable. Auburn is better than the Gamecocks, and worlds better than Mizzou, and Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham emerges as the key to an upset between two very evenly matched teams — as the Vegas line (Georgia minus-2½) will attest. It’s been two months since Georgia’s really been tested. Auburn is capable of doing more than just that.
1. Stats lie, game film doesn’t
Judging solely from statistics, Georgia’s pass defense seems pretty stout. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in pass defense, pass efficiency defense, and interceptions. They picked off Bentley twice in last week’s 24-10 victory. But watching the games, it was easy to see how both both Bentley and Missouri’s Lock found openings in the Bulldogs secondary. Lock passed for 253 yards, Bentley 227, the two highest totals against Georgia this season. Leading a much more balanced offense than either the Gamecocks or Mizzou, Stidham (third in the SEC in passing yards per game) will surely see on film where Bentley and Lock succeeded, and try to follow suit. If the Bulldogs hope to remain unbeaten, that pass defense must rise to the level of the opponent.
2. Jake Fromm’s stiffest test
South Carolina wanted to make Jake Fromm beat them last weekend, and Georgia’s freshman quarterback did just that. Fromm has been exceptional since stepping in for Jacob Eason, even though Georgia still passes the ball rather sparingly (they’re last in the SEC in pass offense) relative to the rest of the league. But Auburn looms as absolutely the most hostile environment the freshman will play in so far, especially in the SEC. Georgia fans turned Notre Dame into Athens North, Tennessee is in a down year, Vanderbilt is — well, Vanderbilt. Jordan-Hare, by contrast, can be an absolute well of noise. The crowd, in tandem with that Auburn defense, will together pose Fromm’s stiffest test to date.
3. Balance in the backfield
Auburn doesn’t boast the depth at running back that Georgia has, particularly with Kamryn Pettway out for an indefinite amount of time with a broken shoulder blade. But it’s the Tigers, not the Bulldogs, who have the SEC’s leading rusher, Kerryon Johnson, who’s averaging 124 yards per game. No question the Bulldogs are loaded in the backfield with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but Auburn’s level of balance on offense exceeds even Georgia’s, and coach Kirby Smart’s team has yet to face anything like it. The Tigers are capable of controlling clock by keeping it on the ground, setting up big shots from the quarterback, and beating Georgia at its own game.
4. Rush defense rises to the occasion
Auburn’s defense hasn’t allowed an opponent to rush for 200 yards or more this season. Georgia has rushed for 200 or more in eight of nine games — and twice gone over 300, once cracking 400. Immovable object, meet irresistible force. It’s going to take quite an effort for Auburn to contain that Georgia ground game, but the signs are there. The Tigers allowed just 96 yards rushing to Clemson, and only 157 to LSU despite that second-half collapse. No one has rushed for more yards on Auburn this season than Mississippi State, which went for 194 and still lost 49-10. Notre Dame is the lone opponent to keep Georgia under 200, and not coincidentally the lone opponent to have a chance at sending the Bulldogs home with a loss.
Prediction: Auburn 27, Georgia 24
No doubt, Georgia is a great team, and that victory at Notre Dame — a top-4 CFP program as well — ranks among the best wins by any squad this season. But it’s hard to be perfect every week, and Auburn presents that combination of defense, running game, savvy quarterback and raucous home field that can be difficult for a visiting team to overcome. A lot of people dismissed the Tigers after that meltdown at LSU, and understandably so. But outside of those two quarters, the Tigers have been near-flawless since mid-September, blowing out opponents at a rate almost equal to Georgia. We’re betting that’s the real Auburn, and not the one that wilted in the second half in Death Valley. If so, the Bulldogs are in for a real battle to keep their unbeaten season and playoff hopes alive.
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