No. 7 Auburn hosts No. 25 Georgia in SEC matchup
It's no surprise that this Georgia-Auburn game features a Southeastern Conference title contender ranked in the Top 10.
The twist is that the seventh-ranked Tigers are the ones in control of their destiny while the 25th-ranked Bulldogs' championship chances have taken a hit during an injury-plagued season going into Saturday's meeting.
''I think it is kind of eye-opening or shocking, I guess, to some,'' said Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah, who is from Georgia. ''We knew that we were going to have a successful season, maybe not as successful as this. And coming into this game, we knew that there were going to be a lot of implications but I guess the tables have somewhat turned.''
Indeed, they have. Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC) can claim a spot in the league championship game with wins over the Bulldogs (6-3, 4-2) and No. 1 Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
If that happens, and some teams above them lose, Gus Malzahn's Tigers could be playing for a second national title in four years, a year after going 3-9.
''It's super impressive what coach Malzahn has done,'' said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team needs some help to win the East. ''Everywhere he has gone he's won. If you look at his track record it's amazing, especially as a head coach and what his teams have done. He's turned it around very quickly - quicker than maybe I would hope - but you have to give him credit. They are doing a great job.''
Auburn is but a field goal favorite in this longstanding border rivalry billed as the oldest in the Deep South. It has historically been so tight that through 116 meetings the record is 54-54-8 with an average margin of .9 points.
''It's kind of legendary how tightly contested most of these games have been and how close the series has been,'' Richt said.
The Bulldogs have owned it lately with a pair of 38-point wins the past two seasons.
They started out ranked fifth nationally and have beaten No. 11 South Carolina and No. 18 LSU when both teams were ranked in the Top 10.
''Obviously we have a big challenge for us this weekend, playing one of the top teams in the country at the first of the year before they had injuries,'' Malzahn said.
Here are five things to watch when No. 7 Auburn hosts No. 25 Georgia on Saturday:
MARSHALL VS. MURRAY: Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall started his career at Georgia - as a defensive back. He just ran for 214 yards against Tennessee but has attempted only 15 passes the past two games. Murray set the SEC's career mark with touchdown pass No. 115 last week against Appalachian State.
BACK TO AUBURN: The Bulldogs are making a return trip to Jordan-Hare in a scheduling quirk caused by the league's expansion last year. That might not be such a bad thing since they are 15-10-2 in Auburn. ''I definitely wish we could have had them at home, but we've got to be ready to go and we've to be ready for the noise,'' Murray said. ''It's going to be crazy.''
CROSSING THE BORDER: Malzahn hired defensive line coach Rodney Garner away from Georgia, and Garner helped land some recruits who were targeted by both schools, most notably defensive tackle Montravius Adams. The Tigers also have 26 players from Georgia, including Marshall. ''I feel for everybody from Georgia this is a personal game,'' said Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy, who is from East Atlanta.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Tigers set an NCAA record with an average of 44.85 yards on seven punt and kick returns against Tennessee, scoring both ways. Georgia has struggled in the return game, but Marshall Morgan's 10.0 points per game is tops in the SEC among kickers. Auburn's Tre Mason has scored a league-high 17 touchdowns, one on a 100-yard kick return early this season.
RUNNING WILD: Now that Georgia's Todd Gurley is healthy, this game will feature three of the SEC's top rushers. Mason has run for 1,038 yards and Marshall has gained 734. Gurley, though, opened the season as perhaps the SEC's biggest star at tailback. He has 625 yards and six touchdowns in six games. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he ''may be the most physical back in the league.''