Auburn will find little room for error when it hosts Georgia on Saturday in the 124th iteration of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. The storied rivalry has been a bit lopsided of late in favor of the Bulldogs, who have won 11 of the past 14 matchups and five of seven during Gus Malzahn's tenure. That's a trend that, unless reversed, could make Malzahn's seat warmer going into the future.
Georgia's stout defense is the first thing that jumps out when looking at the Bulldogs. They are giving up only 10.1 points and 260 total yards per game, both ranking near the top of the national rankings. The Bulldogs don't allow much on the ground, with opposing teams only mustering 75 yards a game.
Even with a healthy Boobee Whitlow back and the emergence of D.J. Williams as a dependable running threat, the Tigers will likely find yards on the ground hard to come by, and rushing touchdowns even more-so, as the Bulldogs haven't allowed a single rushing touchdown this season.
The pressure to move the sticks and find ways into the end zone will likely fall heavily on freshman quarterback Bo Nix , who will face a Bulldogs defense that has only given up an average of 160 yards a game through the air in SEC play. Nix has struggled against ranked teams this season, failing to complete more than 43 percent of his pass attempts in matchups against Oregon, Florida and LSU. Auburn coaches opened the playbook up two weeks ago against Ole Miss, with Nix targeting a wide range of players, from top threats Anthony Schwartz (12 targets) and Seth Williams (11) to Jay Jay Wilson (3) and Will Hastings (4). Auburn will likely need to approach the Georgia game in a similar fashion, although Nix and the coaches will have to do a much better job of turning the targets into touchdowns when opportunities arise.
Keeping Nix's jersey as clean as possible will be key for the offensive line against a Georgia defense that has registered 10 sacks in six SEC games.
On defense, the Tigers will face a run-heavy Georgia offense that is averaging 216 yards on more than 30 rush attempts a game this season. The Bulldogs' rushing attack is led primarily by arguably the SEC's top offensive line and junior back D'Andre Swift, whose 102 yards a game ranks second in the conference. Working in Auburn's favor is its stellar front and rush defense — the Tigers have held opponents to 113 yards a game on the ground and have and are tied for first the conference with 12 forced fumbles.
If the Tigers can stymie the Bulldogs' rushing attack, they will have to rely more on junior quarterback Jake Fromm, who has been efficient yet, at times, not explosive this season. He's only thrown three interceptions this year, all coming in Georgia's shocking loss at home to South Carolina, and is connecting on 67 percent of his passes. Getting to Fromm while only rushing four will be key if the Tigers want to force the seasoned signal-caller into a mistake.
The biggest key to the game might end up being which teams wins the third-down battle, though. Auburn has struggled on third down vs. ranked opponents, converting only 29 percent, while Georgia has converted 55 percent in its two ranked matchups. The two defenses have fared better in ranked games, with the Bulldogs holding opponents to a 27 percent rate and Auburn to a 35-percent rate.
Nix's play, third downs and putting a clamp on the Bulldogs' rush game will be key, as will the crowd. My take: Auburn 17, Georgia 13.