ATHENS, Ga. — There’s no need to look too deep to find what the Deep South’s oldest rivalry means for the combatants this year.
Georgia (8-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) need a win Saturday to head back to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for a second consecutive year.
Auburn is desperate to break through with its first SEC win of the season against the backdrop of noise about the future of coach Gene Chizik.
The Tigers (2-7, 0-6 SEC) haven’t started 0-7 in SEC play since 1952.
It’s quite a flip of the script from the last time Georgia visited the Plains.
Auburn and its star quarterback, Cam Newton, beat back the Bulldogs, 49-31, two years ago en route to an unbeaten season and a national championship.
Georgia finished that 2010 season with a 6-7 record and began the next season 0-2 but rallied for 10 consecutive wins and a spot in the SEC title game. Now the fifth-ranked Bulldogs are on the brink of returning to Atlanta.
The Tigers have gone 4-10 in the SEC since Newton left for the NFL, but Georgia isn’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “It’s at their place. Any time you play away, it’s always a challenge. It’s going to be a live environment, a big-time rivalry game. I know they’re going to be ready to go, and we need to be ready to go as well.”
Auburn’s only victories this season came Sept. 15 with a 31-28 overtime victory over Louisiana-Monroe and Saturday against 1-8 New Mexico State, 42-7.
Chizik, in his fourth season as the Tigers coach, said this summer at SEC Media Days that “we’re in a much stronger position as a football team,” than heading into the 2011 season, because of depth and some experience.
So what happened?
“I don’t think you can pin it on one thing,” Chizik said Sunday. “We’ve been in a lot of football games where we’ve had opportunities to win. I think our struggles, particularly in the first several games fourth-quarter-wise, when the game could have went either way, execution-wise we weren’t able to pull those out where in the past years we have a high-percentage of the time. … As we’ve said all along, we’ve got to coach better and we’ve got to play better.”
Auburn was outscored 69-6 in the fourth quarter before the New Mexico State game. It has lost its six conference games by an average of 17.3 points per game and its remaining SEC games are against the teams that are likely to play in the SEC title game: Georgia and top-ranked Alabama.
“Being realistic, we have nothing to lose,” Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer about the Georgia game. “To ruin their dreams would make our season.”
The Bulldogs routed Auburn 45-7 last season and are favored by 15 points Saturday.
“Georgia’s got a lot riding on the line, and so I’m sure they’re going to be extremely fired up about what the results of this game could mean for them,” Chizik said.
Richt told his players early into his postgame talk after the Ole Miss win Saturday that Georgia was playing a “fierce rival. We’re going to be at their place and they’re going to be playing out of their minds. They’re going to be playing their tail off. We know we’ve got to get ready. Knowing what’s at stake, I would hope everybody would respect that.”