Sugar fell from the sky at Auburn. It was Nov. 13, 1982, and the clinching of a third consecutive SEC title marked the last signature victory of the Herschel Era. On Nov. 16, 2002, Michael Johnson outjumped Horace Willis on fourth-and-15 at the end of 70-X-Takeoff. That sealed the SEC East for Mark Richt’s knock-the-lid-off team. It likewise happened at Auburn.
As much as is made of the Georgia Tech series and the World’s Largest Et Cetera, it’s what happens against Auburn – and often what happens at Auburn – that defines Georgia football. Of the school’s 12 SEC championship teams, 10 beat Auburn; six of the past seven title-winning Bulldogs won at Auburn. (From 1916-58, most of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry games were played in Columbus.)
Lewis Grizzard described these programs as “two brothers wrestling,” and there has long been cross-pollination. Vince Dooley went to Auburn. Pat Dye went to Georgia. Nick Marshall began at Georgia and ended at Auburn. Tray Matthews, who as a Bulldog was half of the deflection of the Marshall pass that became the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, is an Auburn safety. Georgia’s 1986 upset was immortalized as the “Between the Hoses” game because Auburn assistant athletic director Kermit Perry ordered that water cannons be turned on celebrating Bulldogs fans. Perry, from Cedartown, was a track star at Georgia.
The SEC’s first overtime game came at Auburn. Jim Donnan’s Bulldogs tied it on the last play of regulation and won after four OTs. The loudest hit every heard in a football stadium was Smokey Hodge lighting up Tim Worley on third-and-1 in 1988. The first game Auburn didn’t win under Terry Bowden – he’d started his odd tenure 20-0 – was a tie against Georgia in 1994. Dye’s final Georgia-Auburn game came in 1992, when his Tigers, trailing 14-10, fumbled at the 1 and saw time expire before they could run another play.
We note: Every game referenced above came at Auburn. As great as this series is, it tends to save its signature moments for Lee County, Ala. As fate would have it, that’s where the nation’s No. 1 team is headed.
Georgia doesn’t need to win Saturday to play for the SEC title. It clinched the East last weekend. It does, however, need to win to stay No. 1 – and maybe to play for a national championship. The Bulldogs could make the playoff at 12-1 if they win the SEC title; they wouldn’t make it with a loss Saturday and another on Dec. 2. If winning at Notre Dame was the launch pad, winning at Auburn would be the booster rocket. It would prove that Georgia’s unbeaten run isn’t just a function of the abject flimsiness of the SEC East.
The Bulldogs have outscored five East opponents 205-59. They also beat Mississippi State 31-3. Auburn trounced the same State 49-10. Still, debate rages as to just how good these Tigers are: They were held to 117 yards and saw Jarrett Stidham sacked 11 times at Clemson, and they couldn’t hold a 20-point lead at LSU. The only ranked team Auburn has beaten is one of the two Georgia has beaten.
Here’s a stat that drives Jeff Dantzler, the Athens radio man and Georgia historian, crazy: The Bulldogs have beaten Auburn in nine of the past 11 meetings; the two times the Tigers won, they played for the national championship. Georgia last played for a national title Jan. 1, 1983. It’s No. 1 in the only ranking that matters, but enough has gone wrong over the past 34 years that Bulldogs backers live in dread of the sky falling, which isn’t the same as sugar dropping from above.
Auburn hasn’t had the season Georgia has, which isn’t to say Auburn can’t beat Georgia. The Bulldogs rank fourth nationally in total defense; Auburn ranks 14th. Georgia ranks 31st in total offense; the Tigers rank 22nd. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the Bulldogs No. 6; Auburn is No. 8. According to FPI, the home team has a 51.4 percent chance of winning Saturday, which is the equivalent of a coin flip.
Not since Sept. 9 in South Bend has Georgia faced a checkers-are-equal game. Some still wonder about Jake Fromm’s capacity to throw against a big-time defense. (Some also wonder about Stidham’s.) Auburn is missing Kammryn Pettway, its most gifted back, but understudy Kerryon Johnson has rushed for one more yard than Nick Chubb.
Technically this isn’t a playoff game, but it feels like something from the round of 16. If Georgia wins, it will be unbeaten when it plays Alabama. If Auburn wins, there’s no guarantee Georgia will face Alabama. Should the Tigers then take the Iron Bowl – also set for Jordan-Hare – they’ll play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Not since 2004 have these ancient foes met with both in the top 10, and that was also at Auburn. The Tigers of Jason Campbell and Cadillac Williams thumped the Bulldogs of David Greene and David Pollack 24-6. But that was then. This is now. Georgia 23, Auburn 20.