The Georgia Bulldogs will host the No. 8 Auburn Tigers in a critical SEC matchup Saturday, Nov. 12, at Sanford Stadium.
Georgia (5-4, 3-4 SEC) is already eliminated from the wild SEC East title chase, but Auburn (7-2, 5-1) has a simple path to the West crown: win.
With a victory over the Bulldogs, Gus Malzahn’s team would set up a winner-take-all season finale against rival Alabama.
Auburn opened as an eight-point favorite, according to Odds Shark. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET, and CBS will televise the game.
Run Effectively Early
Throughout the team’s six-game winning streak, Auburn has relied on the ground attack. But when the offense struggled early—LSU and Vanderbilt—the result was a one-score margin of victory.
Otherwise, the Tigers have rattled off three blowouts and a convincing win over Ole Miss.
If the Tigers can assume control of the trenches right away, Georgia will find itself in a problematic spot trying to stop the one-two punch of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson.
Force High-Pressure Situations
Ideally, Georgia would prefer a balanced offense that relies on Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. However, Auburn can complicate the Bulldogs’ plan by forcing Jacob Eason to carry the unit.
According to CFBStats.com, the freshman has moved the chains 15 times in 32 attempts when throwing a pass on a third down between one and six yards. At seven-plus yards, though, Eason’s conversion rate is nearly cut in half (25.5 percent).
From Auburn’s perspective, if Eason makes the play, fine. But the Tigers cannot afford to let Georgia ride its running backs.
Shorten the Game
Vanderbilt managed to hang around with Auburn for several reasons, but a key was that two of the Commodores’ drives elapsed seven minutes. Both of them ended in a field goal.
Time of possession is generally an overrated stat in today’s up-tempo era. But for underdogs—particularly on the road—the value of controlling the clock remains.
Even if a long drive ends in a field goal, burning five-plus minutes should be viewed as a major success for Georgia. But the Bulldogs need to sustain multiple possessions like that.
Defensive Red-Zone Success
Though the Tigers often move the ball downfield, finishing drives with seven points instead of three can be a problem. Auburn has the 19th-most red-zone possessions in the country, but its 51.2 touchdown rate ranks 115th of 128 teams.
However, only seven defenses are worse than Georgia at allowing touchdowns. Opponents have reached the end zone on 73.3 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
Auburn will have several promising drives. Whether or not the Bulldogs force field goals will a key factor in the outcome.
Kerryon Johnson, Running Back
Pettway has rushed for at least 169 yards in four straight games, but Malzahn said the powerful back “pulled something” in the win over Vanderbilt, according to the school.
That comprehensive injury report leaves Pettway’s status as an unknown, while Johnson isn’t completely healthy. Nevertheless, he may become the featured back against Georgia.
Johnson has tallied 78 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries since sitting out the Arkansas game. If Pettway is unavailable, the Tigers will rely on the hobbled Johnson for 20-plus attempts this week.
Carl Lawson, Defensive End
Are the Bulldogs ready for Carl Lawson?
The junior edge-rusher ranks 10th nationally with 8.5 sacks and has recorded 23 hurries, according to CFBStats.com. Lawson has contributed on a sack in seven of nine games this season.
Georgia’s offensive line is decent, but Lawson—a Bednarik Award semifinalist—might make Eason’s day miserable.
Jacob Eason, Quarterback
Barring a surprisingly dominant first quarter, Georgia will likely be trailing in the second half. How will Eason respond?
The freshman has led three go-ahead drives, but he’s also struggled for the duration of several games. While some of the blame falls on the receivers, Eason—as head coach Kirby Smart said, per Jason Butt of the Macon Telegraph—is learning the hard way.
Auburn might be the final chance for the young quarterback to upend a ranked opponent as a freshman. There’s no better time for a breakout game from Eason.
John Atkins, Defensive Tackle
Don’t expect a large impression in the box score from John Atkins, but he’ll be involved on nearly every play.
A 6’4″, 315-pound nose guard, Atkins will be tasked with shedding double-teams up the middle. Winning those battles is a tremendously important part of stopping the run.
Though Atkins will typically rely on teammates to finish the tackle, the junior will be instrumental in setting up those chances.
The SEC provides a gauntlet of running backs. Michael Niziolek of the Ledger-Enquirer noted Auburn linebacker Darrell Williams described the task in a surprising way:
Definitely looking forward it. This year has been a pleasure. Being in high school, and seeing all these running backs like Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, and guys like that. Just facing them and applying technique. I respect them. You’ve got to respect your opponent’s game. This is going to be a joy.
According to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald, Smart is concerned the defense is often in position to make a play but can’t finish the tackle.
“Our tackling on defense is the most frustrating thing,” the first-year coach said after Georgia edged Kentucky. “We get hats in the right spot, and we don’t get the guy on the ground. … We’ve got to tackle better in the stretch run, especially against Auburn.”
Injuries are a legitimate concern for Auburn, especially if Sean White and/or Pettway are limited in any fashion.
However, led by Johnson, the Tigers will establish the running game early and take control of the scoreboard. They’ll also limit the effectiveness of both Chubb and Michel, forcing Eason into unfavorable third-and-long situations.
Lawson and Co. will provide constant pressure on Eason, who must avoid committing a costly turnover for Georgia to have a chance.
Auburn will improve to 8-2, setting up that Iron Bowl showdown with an Alabama team that will likely be undefeated.
Prediction: Auburn 34, Georgia 20
All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.