AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn remembers being where No. 5 Georgia stands: a win away from the SEC Championship Game with a national title still within grasp.
It was only two years ago, after all. Before the Bulldogs’ impressive rise and the Tigers’ dramatic fall.
Georgia (8-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) can clinch its second consecutive trip to the league championship game with a victory over Auburn (2-7, 0-6) tonight.
The Tigers snapped a five-game losing streak last week against New Mexico State, but are still a longshot to win an SEC game since that requires a win over the Bulldogs or No. 1 Alabama.
“Us playing big in a game like this is huge,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “Our guys catching a little bit of momentum from last week. This is just a huge rivalry game.
“We’ve been on the flip side of this where we’ve got to win to win our side of the league. As a matter of fact, it was against Georgia when we were in the exact same position here at home. Hey, we’re excited about the challenge.”
The stakes are pretty clear for the Bulldogs. Win, they’re in the SEC title game. Lose, and Florida goes to Atlanta instead.
Georgia comes into this game a big favorite in what’s billed as the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. The border battle has been competitive with Auburn holding a slender 54-53-8 edge.
But the gap has widened in Georgia’s favor since Cam Newton rallied Auburn to a 49-31 win two years ago to clinch the SEC Western Division crown against a Georgia team on its way to a 6-7 season. The Bulldogs produced the biggest margin in the rivalry dating back to 1892 last season with a 45-7 win.
Richt blames the competitive SEC, even if that’s not how frustrated Auburn fans view it.
“I think the big thing is just our league itself,” Richt said. “There is truly a very, very fine line between winning and losing. There are a lot of good teams in our league in my opinion that still might have a losing record in league play.”
Quarterback Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense face a defense that surrended 63 points to No. 15 Texas A&M two weeks ago but also a team with nothing to lose.
“That makes them extremely dangerous,” Bulldogs wide receiver Tavarres King said. “We know they want to ruin our season. What more could they possibly want than to ruin our dreams for the SEC or the national title? You know that’s what they want to do. I told the guys you don’t want that to happen. You don’t want to feel like you did after South Carolina. That’s all the motivation you need right there.”
Georgia has rebounded from a 35-7 loss at No. 12 South Carolina to win three straight, including a victory over No. 7 Florida. Now, the Bulldogs are moving on without receiver Marlon Brown, who’s out with a torn ACL.
The defense has allowed just 19 points total in those games and now faces the league’s 13th-rated offense and freshman quarterback Jonathan Wallace. Wallace will make his second straight start and first in an SEC game.
Chizik said this defense is “night and day” from the one the freshman faced against New Mexico State, when the Tigers scored 35 second-half points. Wallace acknowledges that, and the challenge of facing a defense led by All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones, who has 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in seven games.
Wallace also has no doubt Georgia will try to rattle him early with pressure.
“Of course. Why not?” he said. “From what I think about Georgia they are going to come for me and I’m going to have to make some plays Saturday. That’s just what it’s going to come down to. Of course we’re going to be able to run the ball some, but it’s really going to come down to whether or not I can make the plays that need to be made.
“I’m going to step up to the plate. That’s what this game is about, is competing. It’s just one of those things where I have to grow up quick. I’m ready for the challenge. It’s going to be a lot of fun Saturday.”