ATHENS, Ga. — A year after they met in Atlanta for the SEC Championship, Auburn and No. 5 Georgia enter Saturday’s game in Athens on different paths.
The Bulldogs are heading down a familiar one. Georgia is going back to Atlanta as the SEC East champs, a date with top-ranked Alabama already assured.
Auburn, meanwhile, comes in at 6-3 with seemingly more questions than head coach Gus Malzahn has answers.
So much so that Georgia opened as a 14 1/2-point favorite, according to VegasInsider.com, although Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart knows the last thing his team can do is overlook their long-time rival.
Kickoff at Sanford Stadium is set for 7 p.m. (ESPN).
“It’s a rivalry game. I mean so many of our kids were recruited by them and so many vice versa. It’s always a rivalry game, and I think that a big part of that is being at your best when your best is needed,” Smart said. “The challenge for our guys. We’re playing at home, at night, in our stadium, which I think is really important to our fans, important to our players to protect our home turf, and we want to put our best effort forward.”
However, it’s not all about having bragging rights with a longtime foe.
Georgia (8-1, 6-1) likely needs to win its three remaining regular-season games and beat Alabama in the SEC Championship to get back to the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row.
Just ask Bulldogs running back Elijah Holyfield.
“We have enough motivation with what we have going this year,” Holyfield said. “We have a chance to play for many more things down the road and we are just looking forward to playing the game Saturday against a good team, executing and playing our best.”
Auburn (6-3, 3-3) would love nothing more to avenge last year’s loss to the Bulldogs in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and take some of the recent heat off its head coach, Gus Malzahn.
The Tigers are coming off a comeback 28-24 victory over Texas A&M, but Malzahn feels his Auburn squad has to play even better to have a shot against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
Running the ball better would help.
The Tigers rank an uncharacteristic 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging just 120.8 yards per game. The Bulldogs are tied for fourth in rushing defense, giving up 137 yards per contest, but are coming off a game that saw the defense holding SEC leading rusher Benny Snell of Kentucky to just 73 yards.
“We’re not happy at all with the rushing numbers,” Malzahn said. “Everybody here knows that. There’s a lot of things that we need to work on and correct and we will continue to do that.”
Georgia, meanwhile, hopes the experience it gained last year pays off with another successful conclusion to its latest football campaign.
“What helps is playing well, and your play is reflected by your behaviors, which are your actions in practice. And it all boils back down to that,” Smart said. “We can make it psychological all we want, but at the end of the day it’s how you work during the week, what are your behaviors in practice, and your behaviors lead to playing better, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now is play better.”