Pregame analysis of Auburn's game against Georgia:
What: Auburn Tigers (7-2, 4-2 SEC) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (8-1, 5-1)
When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Central
Rankings: Auburn is No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 13 in the Associated Press and coaches rankings. Georgia is fourth in the playoff rankings and fifth in the other two.
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn
Line: Auburn by 2½
TV/Radio: TV: CBS; Radio: WTDR-FM, 92.7 (Oxford), WMSP-AM 740 (Montgomery), SiriusXM 190 (Streaming 961)
Three things Auburn must do
1. Keep Georgia under 200 rushing yards.
It’s no secret that Georgia has not joined college football’s passing game revolution like the conference’s other top contenders: LSU and Alabama. Only three teams in the SEC (Mississippi State, Tennessee and Kentucky) have attempted fewer passes than the Bulldogs in games against Power 5 opponents, and one of those (Kentucky) has a wide receiver playing quarterback.
Offensive coordinator James Coley still wants to run the ball first and often. Georgia leads the SEC averaging 5.6 yards a carry on the ground. Lead running back D’Andre Swift ranks fourth in the SEC with 147 carries this season and second averaging 102.3 yards a game.
The Bulldogs have rushed for at least 230 yards in five of their nine games. Their average margin of victory in those games is 34.6 points. In their other four games, though, they have rushed for fewer than 175 yards. Their margins of victory in three of those games were six points over Notre Dame, seven points over Florida and 27 over a Missouri team playing without starting quarterback Kelly Bryant.
The fourth was the loss to South Carolina. Georgia rushed 43 times for 173 yards in that one, or just 4 yards a carry. That’s the team’s second-lowest mark in any game this season. And it forced the Bulldogs to go to the air — quarterback Jake Fromm attempted a career-high 51 passes in that game, completing 28 (54.9 percent) for 295 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
That was the sixth time in 38 career games that Fromm has attempted more than 30 passes in a game. Georgia is now 0-5 in those games, compared to 32-1 when he attempts 30 or fewer throws.
2. Bother quarterback Jake Fromm.
If the Tigers can put the Bulldogs in a position where they have to put the game on the shoulders of their junior quarterback, the defense has to be able to affect him. That’s what South Carolina was able to do so well five weeks ago.
Georgia, which has one of the best offensive lines in college football, entered that Oct. 12 game having allowed just one sack through the first five weeks of the season. A very good Gamecocks defensive line got home for three sacks that day in Athens.
There’s a good chance Auburn’s pass-rushing crew of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Big Kat Bryant, among others, has pulled up that film this week.
South Carolina’s ability to do that was the biggest harbinger of its success. For the season, Fromm is completing 67 percent of his passes for 149.8 yards a game and 13 touchdowns, but all three of his interceptions came in that one game, and at least one was influenced by pressure.
Israel Mukuamu returned that one 53 yards for a touchdown at the end of the first half that gave the Gamecocks all the momentum. Two others stopped drives that crossed midfield. It’s a big reason why South Carolina was able to win despite being out-gained 468-297 and losing the time of possession battle 36:04-23:56.
3. Build on what works for Bo Nix.
Saturday will mark the first time since a Sept. 21 win over Notre Dame that Georgia will face a quarterback that opened the season as his team’s starter.
Tennessee gave freshman Brandon Maurer the first start of his career against the Bulldogs. South Carolina started Ryan Hilinski in place of the injured Jake Bentley, and he got injured, too, which meant Dakereon Joyner had to come in and relieve him. Kentucky started wide receiver Lynn Bowden at quarterback, and he completed just 2 of 15 passes for 17 yards. Florida has been starting Kyle Trask since Feleipe Franks went down with an injury. Missouri tried Taylor Powell and Connor Bazelak in place of the injured Kelly Bryant.
Those five teams combined to complete 52 percent of their passes for 170 yards a game and six touchdowns to two interceptions.
Bo Nix hasn’t been far better over the course of his true freshman season. He’s completing 56.5 percent of his passes for 199.8 yards per game and has thrown 12 touchdowns to six interceptions. But he has been a different quarterback at home (65.3 percent, 260.8 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions) and is coming off what Auburn coach Gus Malzahn described as “one of his best games, if not his best game.”
Playing against an Ole Miss defense that is stout against the run, Malzahn dialed up quick pass after quick pass for his freshman quarterback, and that combined with the offense’s pace got him into a good rhythm — he completed 30 of 44 passes for 340 yards and ran for a touchdown.
There’s no hiding from the fact that this is a pivotal game for Malzahn. A 7-2 record and No. 12 standing in the playoff rankings aren’t bad, but the fact that both those losses came against top-10 rivals (Florida and LSU) in games where the defense played exceptionally well and the offense struggled to move the ball and score have turned up the fan base’s heat on the head coach yet again. A win over the Bulldogs in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry would go a long way toward quieting the noise and give the Tigers some momentum going into the Iron Bowl two weeks from Saturday, where they might still have an outside shot at securing a spot in the committee’s top four. Lose, though, and Auburn could be looking at the fifth regular season with eight or fewer wins in Malzahn’s seven-year tenure.
Auburn 24, Georgia 20