5 things to know about No. 2 Georgia vs. Auburn

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October 9, 2021 Auburn, Alabama - Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart shake hands after Georgia defeat Auburn in an NCAA college football game at Jordan–Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama on Saturday, October 9, 2021. Georgia won 34-10 over Auburn. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

ATHENS – The recently devalued Georgia Bulldogs are set to host the Auburn Tigers for the 1,000th renewal of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.

OK, 1,000 is a slight exaggeration, but neither team has played any other team more than each other. They will face off for the 127th time in 130 years of football at their respective schools when they meet at Sanford Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS).

With the series record standing at 62-56-8 in favor of Georgia, those contests traditionally could go either way. But the defending national champion Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) have gotten the best of Auburn (3-2, 1-1) lately. Georgia has won five in a row – by an average margin of victory of 18 points – and 14 of the past 17 since 2006. You have to go to 2005 to find the last time the Tigers won at Sanford Stadium.

The Bulldogs fell from No. 1 to No. 2 after letting Missouri play them close last week. However, they are favored to win big again Saturday. Las Vegas handicappers set the line at 30 points. That’s close to where it was against Missouri last week, and Georgia needed a 14-point fourth quarter to rally for a 26-22 win.

Here are five storylines heading into Saturday’s game:

Bulletin-board material

If Auburn coach Bryan Harsin was hoping to sneak up on an over-confident Georgia team, he failed miserably when he let center Brandon Council talk to the media this week.

The seventh-year senior – yes, seven years is correct – not only expects the Tigers to have success running the football against the Bulldogs, he believes they will “demolish” Georgia. In his third season at Auburn since transferring from Akron, Council said the Bulldogs have found defensive success by executing elaborate third-down stunt packages. The key, he said, is not needing to convert on third down.

“If you start off fast, run the ball on them and keep them out of their third-down packages, really, we could demolish them, I believe personally, up front,” the 6-foot-4, 328-pound lineman told reporters Wednesday.

While some of what Council said might be true, the Bulldogs actually have been pretty good at stopping the run. They’re giving up only 89.2 yards a game, which ranks second in the SEC and No. 12 nationally.

Auburn features what Smart believes is two of the best tackle-breaking backs in the conference in Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter. Also, Robby Ashford is a lightning-fast running quarterback who ranks second on the team with a 44.6-yard rushing average. But, overall, the Tigers rank only 10th in the SEC in rushing (159.4 ypg) and total offense (389 ypg) and dead last in touchdowns scored.

Such facts have done nothing to dampen Council’s enthusiasm.

“Our goal is to go in there like a SWAT team -- in and out -- and quiet the noise and beat their behinds and get out,” he said.

Turnovers and takeaways

The one area in which Georgia needs to show significant and immediate improvement is in the area of turnovers. And that goes for offense and defense.

Not only have the Bulldogs turned the ball over at an unacceptable rate of late – five times in the past two games – but they also haven’t been taking the ball away from opponents. Georgia has created only one turnover in the past two weeks and that was Christopher Smith’s interception at the end of the 39-22 win over Kent State.

On the season, the Bulldogs have forced only one fumble. In contrast, they have fumbled four times.

The main reason Missouri was able to forge a 16-3 first-half lead on Georgia was a pair of fumbles. Kendall Milton had the football punched out by a defender at the end of a 35-yard run, and quarterback Stetson Bennett and running back Daijun Edwards mishandled a zone-read exchange. Only one of the ensuing Missouri possessions resulted in points, but the turnovers robbed Georgia’s prolific offense of valuable possessions.

Smart said the Bulldogs didn’t do anything special this week to address the problem.

“Emphasis is put on ball security every day,” he said. “There is not a day that we don’t start practice with ball security. I would think if you weren’t putting emphasis on it in the beginning, then you’re not a very smart coach. There is a process to what we do. We believe in the way we’ve practiced, and it works. A lot of it is on the individual to carry it. We might scream and yell at the scout team to strip it more and try to create more contact for a guy, but we don’t change the drills we do.”

Red-zone woes

Red-zone statistics can be deceiving. The Bulldogs actually rank No. 7 in the nation and No. 2 in the SEC in red-zone scoring because they have scored points 96.8% of the time they reached that area, defined as the 20-yard line and in. Georgia is 30-of-31 on its scoring opportunities this season.

But that statistic is less impressive when you see that 11 of those scoring opportunities ended with field goals. That means that Georgia is scoring touchdowns after getting inside the 21-yard line only 61.3%. And considering the Bulldogs were a near-perfect 7-of-8 in the season-opening 49-3 win over Oregon, that represents a precipitous drop.

Fortunately for Georgia, it has ultra-dependable Jack Podlesny to rely on. The junior place-kicker is 12-of-13 on field-goal attempts this season and made all four against Missouri.

“Pod is so clutch with all those field goals he makes,” receiver Kearis Jackson said. “We weren’t able to score, but Pod and his golden leg was able to give us the points we needed. … But we can’t be putting that much pressure on his all the time.”

The Bulldogs rank third in the SEC scoring (39 ppg) but only eighth in TDs scored (22).

Hot-seat Harsin

There have been several in-season coach firings this season. Now the name of Auburn coach Bryan Harsin has moved to the top of the list.

The Tigers’ third-year coach, who came to the Plains from Boise State in 2020, has been under fire since the end of last season when the school’s overactive donor group moved to orchestrate a coup. It failed, but Auburn’s play on the field has done little to quiet the storm.

The Tigers should have lost at home to Missouri two weeks ago when the visitors missed a chip-shot field-goal attempt that should have won it in regulation, then fumbled away what would have been a game-winning opportunity in overtime when a running back lost control of the football diving for the goal-line pylon. Last week, Auburn had a 17-0 lead at home against LSU only to lose 21-17.

Now, reports out of Auburn are that are that Harsin’s next loss could be his last with the Tigers. That’s not something Georgia’s Smart wants to see.

“Yeah, it’s unfortunate,” the Bulldogs’ seventh-year coach said. “It’s become much more the nature of the beast for our profession. With the salaries and television contracts and the amount of money people make, the expectations go up and administration makes decisions much quicker. And that’s their right to do it. It’s not necessarily the best thing for our profession, but it comes with the territory.”

Aloha, Jack Bauerle

Jack Bauerle, Georgia’s beloved and ultra-successful long-time swim coach, will be honored on Dooley Field during the first quarter of Saturday’s game.

Bauerle, a UGA alum, has given the school more than 50 years of service as an athlete and coach. That includes over 43 years overseeing both the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs.

In that time, Bauerle produced seven NCAA and 12 SEC crowns with the women’s team, with 62 different men and women team members winning 175 national championships. His teams posted 48 NCAA top-10 finishes, including 21 top-5 finishes in 22 seasons for the women’s squad from 1995 through 2017.