AUBURN — It would be difficult to argue that Auburn “let one get away” the last time it played Georgia — the Bulldogs led that game by three touchdowns at the start of the fourth quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 14.
But the Tigers do still feel like they had an opportunity to win that game. They scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives to begin the fourth quarter. They reached the Georgia 34-yard line, down only one score, with more than two minutes remaining.
Bo Nix and Harold Joiner couldn’t connect on fourth-and-two from there, ending the comeback bid. But Auburn outscored Georgia 14-0 and outgained it 165-(minus-3) in that fourth quarter, and it happened only six games ago.
That’s surely on the minds of the No. 7-ranked Tigers as they head into the 125th playing of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry at No. 4 Georgia on Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPN). They have won only one of their last six games against the Bulldogs, and you can’t blame it on the defense, which has held the Bulldogs to 28 points or fewer in every meeting since Kevin Steele became defensive coordinator in 2016.
The offense, on the other hand, has scored more than 14 points only once during that stretch, and it came in the lone win in 2017. That side of the ball holds the key to Auburn’s chances of ending a 15-year losing drought in Athens.
Here is a storyline to watch, key matchup and big question going into the earliest Auburn-Georgia matchup since 1936, plus a prediction:
Storyline to watch
Whether Auburn can generate a rushing attack against an elite Georgia defense. An offensive line that rotated seven players was excellent in pass protection during a season-opening win over Kentucky, allowing only two pressures and one sack, but struggled to generate much push in the run game — running backs Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams and Tank Bigsby combined for just 65 yards on 20 carries.
The challenge will be even greater this week — the Bulldogs feature two preseason first-team All-SEC defensive linemen in Jordan Davis and Malik Herring on a defense that has allowed just two rushing touchdowns over its previous 15 games. Nix scored one of them last season, but the Tigers averaged only 2.3 yards per carry in that loss.
“Our running game is going to be more productive,” Shivers said. “It was just the first game and Week 1. We see the things we need to work on.”
Gus Malzahn vs. Kirby Smart: How did this become a thing? Malzahn made what seemed like an innocuous comment Tuesday, calling Georgia “probably the most talented team overall in the SEC. Smart seemed to take umbrage, snapping back with, “That’s called coach-speak. So, thanks Gus. He has the most talent in the SEC himself.”
Auburn’s coach has a point, though: Each of Georgia’s last four recruiting classes has ranked in the top three nationally, with two ranking No. 1. And Smart’s teams have had a decisive advantage on the field, going 8-3 in the 11 games they have been on opposite sidelines as coordinators or head coaches.
“I've got respect for him and he's a really good football coach,” Malzahn said. “When you're rivals, that's just the way it is."
Can Nix find success playing on the road? He put together one of the best games of his career against the Wildcats, completing 16 of 27 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns, but that was at Jordan-Hare Stadium. He's played well there before.
His biggest struggles last season came anywhere else.
Nix completed just 50.5% of his passes, averaged 5.8 yards per attempt and threw almost as many interceptions (four) as he did touchdowns (six) in four career SEC road games. That’s compared to 62% completion, 7.3 yards per attempt and zero interceptions at home.
And while Nix has never played in Sanford Stadium, the Tigers have some rough recent history there. Only one quarterback (Chris Todd in 2009) has passed for more than 170 yards since Brandon Cox completed 16 of 28 passes for 279 yards in that 2005 win. They're the only two who have thrown touchdowns in the past 15 years. All six who played there have thrown at least one interception, with Sean White's in 2016 leading to the only touchdown the Bulldogs scored.
The stars seem to be aligning for Auburn. Georgia is more unsettled on offense than it likely would be if the teams were to meet on their usual November date, with three quarterbacks to choose from in its second game under coordinator Todd Monken. Going between the hedges shouldn’t be as daunting this year given that the crowd has been reduced from 92,000 to 21,000 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The drought finally ends. Auburn 20, Georgia 17