In what will almost certainly be a play-in game for a berth in the College Football Playoff, the SEC Championship will most certainly have the country’s attention as the second-ranked Auburn Tigers, fresh off a dominating 26-14 Iron Bowl victory over Alabama, travel into Georgia’s backyard to face the sixth-ranked Bulldogs in the first SEC Championship to be played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta, following the closure and demolition of the Georgia Dome, the game’s home from 1994 to 2016.
The Tigers currently hold a 10-2 overall record, 7-1 in conference. Those losses came at Clemson on September 9th by a final score of 14-6 and at LSU on October 14th by a score of 27-23, in which the Tigers blew a 20-0 lead to the Bayou Bengals.
The Bulldogs have played to an 11-1 record, 7-1 in conference, with a 40-17 loss to Auburn on November 11th.
Today, we’re going to look at each position matchup and evaluate who has the edge at each, as well as give a prediction for the game’s result.
Auburn’s Passing Offense vs. Georgia Pass Defense
Last week, Jarrett Stidham had his best performance of the season, throwing for 237 yards on 21-of-28 passing, as well as adding 51 rushing yards on 12 carries with a rushing touchdown against an Alabama team that ranks 7th in the NCAA in passing yards allowed per game at 163.7 and is 2nd in the NCAA in total defense. Stidham’s performance was incredibly impressive, given the nature of the game being a one-game playoff to gain a bid into this game. Add in capable receivers like Eli Stove, Will Hastings, Nate Craig-Myers, Darius Slayton, and Ryan Davis, and Auburn’s passing attack can be as potent as any.
Georgia’s passing defense is even better than Alabama’s, however, ranking 3rd in the country at 159.4 passing yards allowed per game, led by defensive backs Malcolm Parrish and Dominick Sanders. However, the Bulldogs allowed 251 yards to Auburn and Stidham, and with the health of Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson up in the air, look for Stidham and Auburn to utilize the passing game heavily. The Bulldogs will be ready for the challenge, so the fact that Georgia’s pass defense is so consistently good makes this an even matchup, even given the previous matchup.
Auburn’s Rushing Offense vs. Georgia’s Rushing Defense
This matchup ultimately comes down to the health of Kerryon Johnson for Auburn. Johnson has been playing at an All-American level for the Tigers this season, rushing for 1,276 yards this season and 17 TD’s, which places him 23rd and tied for 6th in the NCAA, respectively. Johnson, during the Alabama game, in which he had 104 yards on 30 carries, sustained a shoulder injury that knocked him out for the rest of the game, and has left him questionable for this game. Johnson is the heart of this offense, so his absence in this game will be one of the major keys to Auburn’s ability to win this game.
The Georgia rushing defense ranks 12th in the NCAA in rushing yards allowed per game at 112.5 yards per game. The UGA front seven is led by future first-round-pick Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Jonathan Ledbetter, and Trenton Thompson, and has been dominant this season, flexing their muscles against the 5th best rushing offense in the NCAA in Georgia Tech, holding them nearly 120 yards under their average. They were exposed by Auburn’s rushing attack when they played, however, allowing the Tigers to rush for 237 yards, including 162 from Johnson.
If Johnson can play with no noticeable effects, look for Auburn to run the ball at a high frequency, but if not, the Tigers will have to turn to Kam Martin, the third-string tailback for the Tigers. For the purpose of this preview, Johnson will play, so advantage Auburn, but if he doesn’t or is limited, advantage Georgia.
Advantage: Auburn (if Kerryon plays)
Georgia’s Pass Offense vs. Auburn’s Pass Defense
Ever since Jake Fromm took control of the offense for the Bulldogs, they have been consistently scoring the ball at a high rate, averaging nearly 36 points per game. Fromm has been in control of the offense, limiting his mistakes, which also means that his yards per game average is artificially low, at only 169 yards per game. Fromm completes 62% of his throws, and only has 5 interceptions this season, as opposed to 19 touchdown passes. Add in receivers like Riley Ridley, Terry Godwin, Jevon Wims, Mecole Hardman, and tight end Jeb Blazevich, and the Bulldogs have a passing attack that they don’t have to rely on primarily, but can be dangerous and useful.
The Auburn secondary is 14th in the country in defending the pass at around 177 yards per game allowed, and only allowed Fromm to throw for 184 yards in their first matchup. The Bulldogs will try to use the run to set up the pass, so the safety duo of Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts will need to be aware of the downfield passing threat that Fromm and the UGA receiving corps presents. The advantage in regard to yardage clearly goes to Auburn, but the Georgia passing attack still poses a legitimate threat to the Auburn defense.
Advantage: Auburn (but only slightly)
Georgia’s Rush Offense vs. Auburn’s Rush Defense
The clear strength of the Georgia offense is the running game, supported by the three-headed monster of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and D’Andre Swift, with Michel and Chubb at or near 1,000 yards apiece. The Bulldogs rank 9th in the country in rushing yards behind the efforts of those two backs, and getting those backs going early is the biggest key to unlocking Georgia’s offensive rhythm.
The Tigers’ rushing defense is pretty solid as well, which complicates the formula for the Bulldogs. Auburn ranks 21st in rushing yards allowed on the season, led by middle linebacker Deshaun Davis and defensive end Jeff Holland, who both lead one of the top front seven units in the country. Their primary goal will be to stop Chubb and Michel on first and second downs to get to the position of third and medium to third and long, where the pass rush can get after Fromm and make his life much harder.
The Bulldogs have the clear advantage simply because Chubb and Michel are that good, but the Tigers can still hold them under their season average, which would be successful for them in this game.
Auburn’s Special Teams vs. Georgia’s Special Teams
The kicker matchup is practically even between Daniel Carlson and Rodrigo Blankenship, as both hardly miss inside of 50 yards. Georgia has the advantage in punting average by around 5 yards per punt, but the real tipping point of this matchup is kickoff coverage for Auburn. The Tigers’ kickoff coverage team ranks dead last, allowing 28 yards per return. That average starting field position will be very important for the Bulldogs to have success in the matchup.
Georgia will come into this game hungry to beat the Tigers after the 40-17 loss at the hands of the Tigers just 3 weeks ago. Now the Tigers must travel into the Bulldogs’ backyard in Atlanta in order to earn a spot in the playoff. Georgia will come out ready to play.
Auburn, coming off the biggest win of their season, will also come out ready to play with a renewed focus to get into the playoff and earn the respect of the college football community at large.
This SEC Championship will be one of the best and most historic of recent memory, given the new stadium and the unprecedented circumstances of the game. If Kerryon Johnson plays and is not affected by his injury too awfully much, Auburn will be dangerous offensively. Georgia will need Jake Fromm and the receiving corps to make plays down the field passing to put Georgia in a good spot, but in the end, I don’t think Fromm can make all of the throws necessary to get it done for the Bulldogs. Give me the Tigers in a close, but not too close game.
Prediction: Auburn 30, Georgia 21