ATLANTA - Earlier this month, nearly 87,000 fans packed Jordan-Hare Stadium to witness then-No. 1 Georgia put its undefeated season on the line against a 10th-ranked Auburn team that was looking to make a statement before its eventual matchup with Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
The Bulldogs, who were coming off three big SEC East wins at home, had not played on the road since shutting out Tennessee, 41-0, on Sept. 30.
The old cliché of its “hard to play in the SEC” every Saturday in the fall is by far a true statement.
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Even more, playing against a good team on the road with the conference title and College Football Playoff implications on the line makes winning in the conference that much harder.
That proved to be the case on The Plains as Auburn smacked Georgia, 40-17, handing the Bulldogs their first loss of the season and shaking things up in the SEC West and the CFP.
Now, fast forward three weeks and the Bulldogs managed to remain a one-loss team, beating South Carolina and destroying Georgia Tech in the annual rivalry game on Saturday.
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Then, thanks to the uncharacteristic miscues by Alabama against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, the Bulldogs get another shot at the Tigers in the 2017 SEC Championship Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Bulldogs, who last played in the SEC title in 2012 when they lost to Alabama, will have their hands full in stopping an Auburn team that recorded 488 yards of total offense with 237 of them coming on the ground.
Tigers running back Kerryon Johnson and quarterback Jarrett Stidham stole the spotlight from Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm and running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
Johnson, who ranks second in the conference in total rushing yards this season, finished the game with 167 yards on 32 carries, while Stidham torched the Bulldogs’ secondary for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
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Against Alabama -- a team that stifles the running game of its opponents -- Johnson rushed for 104 yards on 30 carries and one touchdown while being banged up late in the game.
Georgia, who has been in top 10 in defense all season, will enter Saturday’s game ranked fourth in the nation in total defense (allowing 272 yards of offense to its opponents per game), 12th in rush defense (113 yards) and third in pass defense (159 yards).
If Johnson plays, he will play a big part in the Tigers’ success on offense, much like he did in the regular-season game.
If Johnson does not, Stidham will be forced to make more plays with his arm and with his legs --something that will not be easy without help of the Tigers rushing attack.
Georgia’s will be put to the test again on Saturday with hopes that the Bulldogs can back up their defensive stats.
Offensively, it does not take a rocket scientist to know that the Bulldogs will have to establish the running game early against Auburn to allow for Fromm to make shots down the field to his wide receivers like Javon Wims, Terry Godwin and Riley Ridley.
According to ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, UGA head coach Kirby Smart said his team’s offensive line will have to get more movement to improve in rematch.
“I think Sony and Nick understood going into the game that it was going to be tough,” Smart said. “We didn’t think it was going to be that tough.”
In the regular-season game, Michel and Chubb combined for 58 yards on 20 carries. D’Andre Swift recorded 18 yards on four carries.
While Auburn defeated Alabama, the Tigers still gave up 209 yards on the ground and 168 yards through the air to the Crimson Tide.
Thus, the Bulldogs can establish success offensively, but they must get the push up front with the offensive line. Without the running game, it is highly possible to see Fromm running for his life outside the pocket or committing costly mistakes due to the pressure from Auburn’s defensive line.
Another part of the Bulldogs’ success comes with their efficiency in third-down conversions.
Against the Tigers, the Bulldogs went 3-of-14 in third down conversions, allowing the Tigers’ offense to get back on the field and keeping the Bulldogs’ defense on the field.
Auburn will enter Saturday’s game ranked 21st in rush defense (giving up 126 yards on the ground per game), 11th in total defense (giving up 303 yards per game) and 14th in pass defense (allowing 177 per game).
While Atlanta is only a 90-minute drive from Auburn, the Bulldogs would much rather play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium than on The Plains at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
With that, the Bulldogs must take care of business in the capital city but more importantly play well in all aspects of the game to claim their first SEC title since 2005.
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