Two points bear making ere I begin breaking down this weekend’s matchup between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers in the 114th edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. First of all, I will not be addressing any of the various allegations regarding Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton. At this point, there is a great deal of speculation and not much in the way of evidence, so, as much as I would find it viscerally satisfying to see the Plainsmen caught doing something underhanded, I cannot at this juncture engage in such wishful thinking without substantially more compelling proof than we now have. Whatever the accuracy, vel non, of the accusations leveled at Cam Newton, those animadversions will not bear fruit in time to affect Saturday’s outing on the Plains, so they are not pertinent for present purposes.
Secondly, I want you to know going in that the Tigers are going to win this football game. If you believe (as I do) that a series of narrow wins over nine Division I-A opponents with a combined 50-32 record is more impressive than a series of blowout wins over eight Division I-A opponents with a combined 30-43 record, you know that Auburn legitimately is the No. 1 team in the country. While I expect the Red and Black to put up a valiant fight, there’s no way a .500 Georgia squad that has struggled on the road and has yet to beat a team with a winning record is going to emerge from Jordan-Hare Stadium with a win in the hip pocket of its silver britches.
I stress that second point because, when you ignore the won-lost records of the two squads, you actually see a contest that is fairly evenly matched on paper. Consider:
- Newton is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, and with good reason: the Auburn quarterback leads the league in rushing yardage, passing efficiency, and total offense. Under Newton’s guidance, the Tigers have tallied an SEC-best 54 total touchdowns, 509.4 yards per game, and 42.2 points per game. However, the Bulldogs rank third in the conference in total defense and fourth in the league in scoring defense. In the Red and Black’s first seven conference games, Georgia has held the opposition below its current scoring average in regulation play on all seven occasions.
- The Tigers rank first in the SEC in rushing offense. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC in rushing defense.
- Auburn leads the league in kickoff returns. Georgia leads the league in kickoff coverage.
- The Bulldogs’ Justin Houston and the Tigers’ Nick Fairley are the SEC’s top two defenders in both sacks (in which Houston is No. 1) and tackles for loss (in which Fairley is No. 1).
Those, though, are anomalies, right? I mean, Gus Malzahn’s offense is going to light up Todd Grantham’s defense, isn’t it? Maybe, maybe not; the Plainsmen have not yet taken on the Crimson Tide, who lead the conference in scoring defense, but here is how Auburn has fared against the other elite defensive units the league has to offer:
|SEC Scoring D Rank||Team||Pts./Gm. Allowed||Pts. Allowed v. Auburn|
All right, maybe quality SEC defenses have held the Tigers at least marginally in check, but the Bulldogs can’t possibly match Auburn score-for-score, can they? Actually, maybe they can:
|Team||SEC Red Zone Off. Rank||Red Zone Chances||Red Zone Scores||Red Zone TDs||Red Zone FG Att.||Red Zone FG Made|
It sounds like the Red and Black may be better able to go toe-to-toe with the Orange and Blue than anticipated. That possibility appears even more probable when we look at the other side of the ball:
|Team||SEC Red Zone Def. Rank||Red Zone Chances All.||Red Zone Scores All.||Red Zone TDs All.||Red Zone FG Att. v.||Red Zone FG Made v.|
We have been speculating about how to beat Auburn, but it is just that---speculation---because no one has done it so far this season. Clearly, the Tigers are by far the toughest opponent with whom the Bulldogs have crossed paths this autumn, and Georgia will need to play very nearly a perfect game to emerge victorious.
Nevertheless, it is not outlandish to suppose that this might come to pass. For instance, the Red and Black will need to keep the ball away from the Auburn offense and win the turnover battle in order to have a realistic chance. However, the Bulldogs appear poised to do just that; Georgia leads the SEC in average time of possession, after all, and the Athenians’ +7 turnover margin is tied for the best in the league. While the Plainsmen justifiably are the favorites, the Bulldogs stack up reasonably well against the Tigers.
Robert E. Lee did not have the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry in mind when he wrote that it is history that teaches us to hope, but the words he penned are applicable to this series. Georgia is 14-9-2 all-time in Jordan-Hare Stadium . . . but, the last time the Bulldogs took on an undefeated Auburn team in the Loveliest Village, the Tigers claimed a 24-6 victory in 2004.
Similarly, the Red and Black are 23-19-8 over the Plainsmen in games settled by seven or fewer points, including each of the last two series meetings, both Bulldog wins. This year, though, Auburn is 5-0 in outings decided by margins of eight or fewer points, including 3-0 at home and 1-0 in overtime games. Georgia, on the other hand, is 0-3 in nailbiters, with an 0-2 mark outside of Athens and an 0-1 ledger in extra innings. A close contest may not work in the Bulldogs’ favor.
In many respects, Saturday’s combatants are evenly matched, but Cameron Newton likely will make the difference. As previously noted, Newton is a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy, which ought to give Bulldog Nation pause. In 1971, Pat Sullivan stated his case for the award he later claimed in an impressive aerial performance in Athens. Against Georgia in 1985, Bo Jackson rumbled for 121 yards on just 19 carries (including a 67-yard touchdown run) en route to his own stiffarm statue. Cam Newton very well may follow in their footsteps.
Nothing would be sweeter after such a disappointing season than getting payback against the Plainsmen for spoiling perfect Red and Black seasons in 1892, 1942, 1971, and 1983, but will it happen? The outlook appears doubtful, despite the signs of hope, but we have a few more details at which to look ere I am prepared to declare the final score.
Stay tuned. . . .
Go ‘Dawgs! Auburna delenda est!