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The Oldest Rivalry in the South Renewed


Worries for Auburn Fans:

1. The Bye Week – Fans often view bye weeks as assets because they provide an opportunity for teams to get healthy and rest before a big game, but a number of programs struggle in this situation because they get out of rhythm and come out flat after the bye. Under Tommy Tuberville, Auburn has been one of those teams. The Tigers are 3-4 in the regular season (3-5 if you include the 2000 SEC Championship Game) after a bye. Moreover, some of Tuberville’s worst losses, such as the 2002 21-point loss at home to Arkansas and the 2001 17-point loss to Syracuse, were after bye weeks. (The good news for Auburn fans is Tuberville’s two regular season wins at Auburn over I-A opponents following a bye were the 2000 and 2001 wins over Georgia.) Comparatively, Georgia had the perfect warm-up for this game: a tilt against an unthreatening opponent.

2. Georgia’s History – Not to state the obvious or anything, but Georgia is 4-1-1 on their last six trips to the Plains. Mark Richt is 15-1 on the road as Georgia’s head coach, a remarkable stat for an SEC head man. Auburn fans, would you feel better if the game was at Sanford Stadium?

3. David Greene – More than anything else, Auburn fans should be terrified of the idea of a close game in the fourth quarter with #14 under center for the Dawgs. Time and again over his career, Greene has played decent football for three quarters and then elevated his play in the fourth quarter to either win the game for Georgia or make a game extremely close. (An aside: for all my criticism of David Greene as being overrated, the guy has thrown one interception all year in 227 attempts. Put another way, he hasn’t thrown a pick since the first half of the second game of the season.) Auburn has not been in a close game since September 18 and their experienced players no doubt remember blowing a potential SEC Title on their home field against the Dawgs two years ago by losing a fourth quarter lead.

4. Georgia’s Talent – As a result of Mark Richt’s excellent job recruiting the State of Georgia, he has a number of stud players on his roster. The Dawgs have often played below themselves this year, but in the one game that they were truly focused – the LSU game – they played one of the best games that any team in college football has played this season. Auburn has played better that Georgia in 2004 and that’s a testament to the Tiger players and coaches (or a knock on Georgia’s players and coaches?), but this Georgia team’s fifth gear is probably a tad higher than Auburn’s. Georgia has been focused on this game since getting past Florida and they are a five-point dog, which is a motivating factor. Moral of the story: Georgia could very well hit that fifth gear on Saturday.

5. Leonard Pope – After playing one of the worst games in the history of tight ends against Tennessee, Pope has suddenly turned a corner and become a major weapon for the Georgia offense. He has five touchdown catches in the past four games. More importantly, he has provided a countermeasure to the two-deep zone, which was befuddling Georgia in the first half of the season. Through the Tennessee game, Georgia succeeded when they could throw the ball long, but struggled when teams gave their receivers cushions and forced the Dawgs to string together short passes to the outside. Now, the latter defensive strategy doesn’t work because Pope has become a potent force in the middle of the field, behind the linebackers and in between or in front of the safeties. Gene Chizik has employed zone coverage to great effect this season, especially against LSU, and he’ll likely conclude from the Tennessee tape that zone is the way to go against Georgia because of the dangers presented by Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown. If that is the case, then Pope could be the guy to break Auburn’s hearts.

Worries for Georgia Fans:

1. This Auburn Team is Really Good – At this stage in the season, Auburn seems to be the best bet to win the National Title, assuming they get the opportunity to play for it. (This year has convinced me of the merits of a playoff, but that’s another column for another time.) #1 USC has skated through the regular season avoiding disaster over and over again, not unlike the 2002 Miami team. Plus, history indicates that it is extremely unlikely for any team to repeat as national champion and USC has not been dominant enough to make us think that they are an exception to the rule.

#2 Oklahoma does not appear to have the defense to win a national title. The common thread with all recent national champions has been a dominant defense. No national champion in the past ten years has finished below 32nd in pass efficiency defense and Oklahoma is currently 51st in that category. No national champion in the past ten years has finished below 17th in scoring defense and the Sooners are currently 19th in that category. Admittedly, the Sooners could improve those numbers with their velvety final three games, but 70 points in two games is still cause of concern.

Auburn looks more like a national champion than Oklahoma or USC (with the possible intervening factor being that human voters don’t like to think.) The Tigers are in the top five nationally in both scoring defense and total defense and they’re in the top 20 nationally in both scoring offense and total offense. Auburn is in the top four in every major statistical category in the SEC and they lead in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Heck, they even lead in net punting. Given all that, Georgia fans should worry about the fact that they are playing a better team.

(One side note regarding the national title: the last time that Georgia and Auburn came into their game with both teams having one or zero losses was 1983. That year, the Tigers beat the three-time defending SEC Champs 13-7 en route to what should have been the school’s second national title. If history repeats itself, then Auburn will win its final four games…and finish #2 behind the USC-Oklahoma winner.)

2. Motivation Disparity – Auburn is playing for the national title; Georgia is playing for, as Mark Richt put it, “possibilities.” Now this could mean that Georgia will play with less pressure, but a look at recent bowl history indicates that teams playing without pressure tend not to do so well against teams playing for a national title. Exhibit A: Michigan’s flaccid performance against USC in last year’s Rose Bowl. Exhibit B: Florida’s weak performance against Miami in the 2000 Sugar Bowl. Exhibit C: Tennessee’s terrible performance against Nebraska in the 1997 Orange Bowl. One has to go back to Ohio State’s Rose Bowl win over Arizona State in 1996 to find a team with nothing tangible to play for beating a team playing for a title. To the extent that the bowl game precedent applies, Georgia fans should be worried.

3. Running the Ball – Georgia has run the ball fairly well this year, especially considering their youth at tailback and the fact that their offensive line was a major question mark coming into the season. However, they are still only 6th in the conference in yards per carry and they are going up against a defense that allows fewer than three yards per carry. The most likely scenario for a blowout is one team making the other one-dimensional and then teeing off on that one dimension. Auburn is very balanced on offense and there is real potential that they can stone Georgia’s running game, especially given the injuries that the Dawgs currently have at running back. (By the way, this game illustrates the truism that players often get more durable as their careers go on. Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams both have injury histories, but they have stayed healthy throughout their senior years. Georgia, relying on freshmen and sophomores at tailback, has had to deal with repeated injuries. Georgia’s young and oft-injured offensive line of 2003 is another illustration.)

4. Auburn’s Passing Game – Georgia’s biggest weakness this year has been their pass defense. They are 8th in the SEC and 72nd nationally in pass efficiency defense. Tennessee repeatedly converted third and longs by getting Georgia’s safeties out of position and then throwing to open receivers down the field. Auburn leads the SEC in pass efficiency and Al Borges has done an excellent job of game planning all year long. This could be a real nightmare for Georgia if Brian Van Gorder can’t get into the heads of his safeties and get them to play disciplined football.

5. The Red Zone – An obligatory mention when discussing the Dawgs. Georgia has struggled in the Red Zone for almost two years and they aren’t going to get too many chances against the Tigers, so they desperately need to get sevens instead of threes when they get inside the 20.


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