Next up: ‘Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry’ with Auburn

ATHENS – The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry resumes this week.

While recent results might have taken a little shine off Georgia-Auburn, Episode 128, it’s still a huge game for opposing fan bases. The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs visit the Plains on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the SEC game of the week. It’s the 128th meeting of the teams, who have played every year but three since first fielding football teams in 1892.

The Tigers (3-1, 0-1 SEC) will be playing Georgia for the first time with Hugh Freeze as their head coach. Auburn dropped its first game of the season 27-10 Saturday on the road against Texas A&M.

As evidenced in that contest, the Tigers have some quarterback issues to work out before Georgia arrives at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Payton Thornton, a fourth-year junior and transfer from Michigan State, started the first four games, but might not start this week after being sacked five times and finishing with only 44 yards passing against the Aggies.

Robby Ashford relieved Thornton midway through the third quarter and Holden Geriner finished the game. None of them were impressive or even effective.

“We’re searching,” said Freeze, considered an offensive coach. “And we’ve got to find some answers.”

Georgia is, of course, coming off what amounts to as its third exhibition game of the season’s first month. The Bulldogs played host to UAB at Sanford Stadium and, despite missing several key players due to injuries, rolled in a 49-21 win. It was Georgia’s 22nd consecutive victory between the hedges and 31st straight regular-season win dating back to the 2020 season.

Here are five things we learned in the rare night game at Sanford Stadium:

Hitting road

Georgia’s victory came in what was its fourth consecutive home game. Not playing away from your home stadium until your fifth game is unusual in college football, or any sport for that matter.

“I would not draw it up that way,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I really believe in playing at a neutral site or getting in a road game, but there’s not a lot of control I have over that either.”

Georgia originally was scheduled to play Oklahoma in Week 2 this season. But the SEC forced both teams to cancel last summer in the wake of the Sooners and Texas joining the league. The SEC will play an 8-game, non-divisional schedule next year.

That means that traditional opponents such as Auburn won’t be guaranteed in the near future. Regardless, the Bulldogs expect to get all they can handle on “The Plains” against the Tigers. Because Smart coached at Alabama for 10 years before returning to Georgia, he believes he’s been involved in more games at Jordan-Hare than any other away stadium.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are a very young team this season, with a roster dominated with freshmen and sophomores. This will be the first trip to Auburn for most of them.

“You couldn’t ask for a better away environment, definitely,” senior tackle Xavier Truss said. “This will be my third time over there. It’s definitely a great atmosphere, a bucket-list place. I just want to get it ingrained in these younger guys’ minds who maybe haven’t had an SEC away game and never played at Auburn, it’s an electric atmosphere there, the crowd’s always rocking.”

Said Smart: “It will be one hell of an environment. They do an incredible job with their fan base. It’s one of the places I think I’ve coached there more than any other location outside of here and Tuscaloosa. Because I always went there here and I always went there there. It’s just an incredible environment. Their fan base is second to none. They’re believing and they’ve got a new coach and a new energy and they’re doing a really good job. It will be tough. We have to prepare that way and hope our players acknowledge that.”

Smart’s start

Saturday marked the 100th game for Kirby Smart as Georgia’s head coach. He is now 85-15. The .850 winning percentage is the best over the first 100 games of any coach in SEC history.

Nick Saban won 84 of his first 100 games at Alabama, Phil Fulmer won 83 at Tennessee and the great Bear Bryant won 81 with seven ties.

“We’re on to the next; you know how that goes.” Smart said. “It certainly takes an unbelieveable organization, university and athletic department. President (Jere) Morehead, Greg McGarity, Josh (Brooks), all the guys that have been involved in this program make our job much easier by supporting us. The fans, the people that pay for the tickets and pay for the facilities, we wouldn’t have 85 wins out of 100 if we didn’t have the organization we have. The people I work with every day from Jonas Jennings to Bryant Gantt to Scott Sinclair, it’s just incredible. Couldn’t do that without all these people, including Claude.”

Claude Felton, Georgia’s longtime sports information director, will enter the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame next year.

Bowers joins 2,000 club

With nine catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns Saturday night, tight end Brock Bowers became the latest player in program history with 2,000 career receiving yards.

Bowers passed the 2,000-yard barrier with his third catch on the night. It was a 12-yard gain on a tight end screen to the left in which he threw UAB safety Ike Rowell to the ground with a stiff arm before continuing down the sideline for another five yards.

Bowers, a junior from Napa, Califonia, enters Week 5 of his third season at Georgia with 2,079 career years receiving. That ranks ninth on Georgia’s all-time list. He also has scored 22 touchdowns – third most in UGA history -- 15 of them via the pass.

“Coach Smart said something to me about it at the end,” Bowers said in a postgame interview. “I was shocked by it, because I never expected to come in do anything like that. It’s pretty cool.”

Of Bowers’ 121 yards Saturday, 110 of them came after the catch. His first touchdown was a 41-yard score in which he shook two defenders who were defending on the midrange sideline pass.

“He’s like a safety; that’s what I always say,” quarterback Carson Beck said. “He’s one of those players where you know if you get the ball in his hands he’s going to go out there and do what Brock does.”

Special teams breakdowns

It was a tough night for Georgia’s special teams. They turned the ball over twice on Saturday. Mekhi Mews fumbled at the end of 15-yard punt return and the Blazers turned that into 7 points. Later, Dillon Bell fumbled on a kickoff return with two seconds remaining in the first half. This time, UAB failed to capitalize.

Smart was beside himself.

“Turnovers are awful and harmful,” Smart said. “We had two on special teams that were just, you know, costly. You can’t do that in our league and win games. So, we better fix it.”

Getting well

Playing the Blazers allowed Georgia to rest a lot of banged-up players. Including the late-week scratch of defensive end Mykel Williams, who has been sick this week, according to Smart. The Bulldogs had at least 16 scholarship players sidelined with various maladies in the last week of practice.

Most of that number did not participate Saturday. Chief among those sitting out were running backs Kendall Milton (knee) and Roderick Robinson (ankle). With those two joining Branson Robinson (out for season with ACL reconstruction) on the sideline, the Bulldogs went primarily with Daijun Edwards, Andrew Paul and walkon Cash Jones -- with a little bit of Dillon Bell sprinkled in.

Truss started at right tackle for Amarius Mims, out 4-6 weeks following tightrope surgery for a sprained ankle, and sophomore Dylan Fairchild got his first career start in Truss’ place at left tackle.

Georgia also played without star safety Javon Bullard (ankle) for the second consecutive week. This time, senior Dan Jackson started in Bullard’s place. Last week, it was junior David Daniel-Sisavanh who got the nod.