ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia is heading back to the Plains for the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry to face an Auburn team that has gone from feeble to formidable.
Under first-year Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn has flipped the script from 3-9 last year to 9-1 this year. The No. 7 Tigers are doing it by running and running and running.
“When you’re running the football, just keep doing it,” Malzahn said after his team ran the ball on 53 of 60 plays in its 55-23 beatdown at Tennessee on Saturday. “That’s kind of who we’re developing into. I still believe we can throw the football. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can, but when you don’t have to, there’s a pretty good feeling.”
Behind quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, the Tigers rank third in the nation in rushing at 320 yards per game. Marshall, a former Georgia cornerback who was dismissed in 2012, rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns Saturday.
Georgia pitched a 38-0 shutout at Auburn last season, and because of the quirks of SEC scheduling after expansion, the Bulldogs are crossing over the border for the second year in a row.
The teams haven’t met at the same site in consecutive years since the game was held annually in Columbus from 1916-58, except for one year. The Bulldogs have won six of the last seven.
Georgia (6-3, 4-2 SEC) clinched the SEC East last year at Auburn and needs to upset the Tigers to remain alive in the East race this year.
Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC) is off this week but will go to Atlanta for the league title game if it wins at Ole Miss and at home against Texas A&M. The Tigers also would win a three-way tiebreaker with Georgia and South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) based on division record.
Auburn, which is 5-1 in league play, still controls its destiny in the SEC West with a home date against Alabama still remaining.
Its 444 rushing yards Saturday was the 12th largest rushing output this season by an FBS team, and Auburn holds three of the top 15 totals.
The Tigers have gone from 115th last year in total offense to 14th this year (493.3), from 112th in scoring to 17th (38.6) and from 78th in rushing to third (320.0).
“They’re believing and they’re playing with confidence right now,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Their personnel probably fits better to what they do now relative to what they did last year. I think that’s a good example of how it’s important to get the right people into your system.”
Malzahn was offensive coordinator under Gene Chizik from 2009-11, including the national title season in 2010, and replaced Chizik after he was fired following a winless SEC season.
“I recruited probably about half of them specifically for this offense,” Malzahn said. “Even when I came back, anytime you change systems, it still takes a little bit for guys to get back to adjusting to it. It was about halfway through spring when I think it started to click a little bit and the guys seemed more comfortable.”
Georgia has moved up to fifth in the SEC in total defense at 367.0 yards per game and is now tied for ninth in scoring defense at 28.8.