By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – No team in the country has completed a more impressive turnaround this season through 10 games than the Auburn Tigers.
One year ago, AU sat at 2-8 overall and winless in Southeastern Conference play. This year, the Tigers enter their showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry sitting pretty at 9-1 overall and 5-1 in league competition.
The difference in year one under head coach Gus Malzanh has not been an influx of new talent, but rather a change in attitude and solidarity among the players.
“It’s all about our players coming together, putting the past behind them and becoming close and I think developing relationships with each other and developing relationships with coaches,” Malzahn said this week. “I think that is the start of it.”
The turnaround is beginning to garner national attention for Auburn, and it certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed within the conference, especially with Georgia head coach Mark Richt.
“They are the team with the greatest turnaround of anybody from last year to this year,” Richt said at his weekly press conference. “It's super impressive what Coach Malzahn has done. 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.”
Because of their impressive 180-degree turnaround this year, the annual showdown with the Bulldogs holds major weight again, both for the Tigers and the Dawgs. For Auburn, a win on Saturday would keep it within striking distance of No. 1 Alabama in the SEC’s Western Division, with the Iron Bowl still looming down the road in the season finale.
For UGA, which has put together two straight wins after suffering back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt in late October, a victory this week would keep it in contention in its own divisional race that is led currently by Mizzou and South Carolina. Although Georgia does not control its own conference destiny at this point, it can give itself a shot by continuing to win and possibly getting help from elsewhere in the division in the form of a Mizzou or South Carolina slip-up.
Auburn boasts the third-best rushing attack in the nation as it enters this weekend, with running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall leading the way. The duo combined for 331 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in last week’s runaway win over Tennessee, and it will be looking for more of the same this weekend against a Georgia defense that has been fairly good against the run.
Georgia, on the other hand, will continue to lean on its own quarterback-running back duo in Aaron Murray and Todd Gurley. Gurley was a key to UGA’s close win over Florida two weeks ago, racking up 187 total yards and two scores in the triumph for the Bulldogs.
Going against an Auburn team that has not been particularly stout against the run (158 rushing yards per game allowed) Gurley will have his chances this weekend which could potentially open things up for Murray and his cast of receivers through the air.
Whatever happens between the lines at Jordan-Hare Stadium, though, don’t be surprised if it’s a closely contested game.
"Our series - as everyone knows - is 54-54-8,” Richt added. “It's a tie and there is actually a 0.9-point per game differential in all those games. That's pretty amazing how close this series has been. It's kind of legendary in how tightly contested most of these games have been and how close the series has been."
Kickoff from The Plains is set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday and can be seen on CBS.
The Auburn-Georgia rivalry is the most played in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision…The first meeting between the two schools took place in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park back in 1892…The all-time series is knotted up entering this year’s renewal, sitting at 54-54-8 after Georgia’s win last season…The Bulldogs are attempting to take their first lead in the series since 1989, when they led the all-time tally by one game at 42-41-7…This year’s game will mark the 70th consecutive meeting between the schools.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 – Georgia 38, Auburn 0 (Auburn, Ala.)
2011 – Georgia 45, Auburn 7 (Athens, Ga.)
2010 – Auburn 49, Georgia 31 (Auburn, Ala.)
2009 – Georgia 31, Auburn 24 (Athens, Ga.)
2008 – Georgia 17, Auburn 13 (Auburn, Ala.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
Aaron Murray tossed three touchdown passes for Georgia in last season’s 38-0 drubbing of the Tigers. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall had a big day on the ground collectively, combining for 221 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns on just 19 total carries. As a team, the Bulldogs outgained the Tigers by a final tally of 497 to 238, with Auburn managing just 57 yards on the ground in the losing effort. Tre Mason, who enters this year’s game as a player to watch for Auburn, managed just 37 rushing yards on 11 carries for the Tigers. The Bulldogs went on the win the SEC East division title and make an appearance in Atlanta for the conference championship game.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Alabama – Tre Mason, Junior, Running Back
Mason has been one of the top backs in the SEC thus far in 2013. The junior is second in the league in total rushing yards (1,038) and third in the league in yards per game (103.8). He’s been especially explosive in recent weeks for the Tigers, totaling 285 yards and seven touchdowns over his last two games – both runaway Auburn wins over Arkansas and Tennessee – while averaging just under 5.5 yards per carry. While the Georgia defense has not been stellar overall this season, the Bulldogs do rank among the top-four in the league against the run, allowing just 126 yards per game in that department while limiting opposing backs to just 3.4 yards per rush. The Dawgs will have to focus primarily on the dependable Mason in the rushing game, but he will have help on the ground in the form of quarterback Nick Marshall, who ranks seventh in the conference in rushing and is fresh off a 214-yard performance against Tennessee last weekend in which he ran for over 15 yards per carry.
Georgia – Todd Gurley, Sophomore, Running Back
Gurley has battled injuries throughout the season, which have caused him to miss three contests in 2013. Even still, the sophomore ball carrier has been one of the best in the SEC, rushing for 104 yards per game when in the lineup and churning out an efficient 6.2 yards per rush. After missing three straight games, Gurley immediately provided a spark in his return against Florida with 100 yards and a score on the ground to go along with 87 receiving yards and a touchdown through the air in a 23-20 triumph for the Dawgs. The Auburn defense has been good against the pass in 2013, but the Tigers have not excelled to the same degree against the run, surrendering over 235 yards per game on the ground and allowing 4.2 yards per attempt to their opponents. Another strong performance from the healthy Gurley could go a long way towards a victory on the road for the Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Auburn – Robenson Therezie, Junior, Defensive Back
Auburn only managed to record two interceptions in 2012, which ranked last in the SEC. In 2013, safety Robenson Therezie has recorded four interceptions by himself to help the Tigers snag seven so far this season. Working as a hybrid safety/outside linebacker, Therezie has adapted well to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s base 4-2-5 system. Therezie and company will be hosting a Georgia offense that ranks second in the SEC and 19th in the nation in passing offense, with its 9.1-yard per pass average ranking in the top 10 nationally as well. Aaron Murray has been without several of his major receiving targets due to injury, but that has not hampered the Bulldogs’ numbers too much on offense. With running back Todd Gurley back in action for the third straight game, a player like Therezie, who can play the run and the pass, will be critical for the Auburn defense as it tries to keep pace with Alabama in the SEC West.
Georgia – Linebacking Duo Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera
The Georgia defense has had its share of struggles this season, but one area where the Bulldogs excel is in run defense. Entering Saturday’s showdown with Auburn, the Dawgs are ranked fourth in the SEC against the run, and third in yards per carry allowed (3.4). Two big reasons for Georgia’s success in this area are linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera. Wilson currently leads the SEC in tackled with 92 overall (10.2 per game) to go along iwht seven tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. His counterpart, Herrera, also ranks among the SEC’s top five tacklers with 79 on the year, including three behind the line of scrimmage. With a formidable rushing attack on tap this weekend at Auburn, this duo will need to continue to play well in order to slow down Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and company on the ground, where they currently lead the conference.
• UGA travels to Auburn for the second straight year marking the first time the game has been played at the same site for two years in a row since 1958.
• The first 10 games of this historic series were played in Atlanta starting in 1892. There were also meetings in Montgomery, Savannah, Athens and Columbus before games on each team’s respective campuses since 1959.
• Senior QB Aaron Murray set his third SEC record of the year in the first half of the Appalachian State game. With his 23-yard strike to junior receiver Michael Bennett in the second quarter, Murray registered the 115th touchdown pass of his career (tied at ninth in NCAA history).
• Auburn has posted the biggest turnaround in the nation through 10 games (last year 2-8). Gus Malzahn is 9-1 in his fi rst season as Auburn head coach, the second-best start ever for an Auburn coach.
• Auburn is one of seven teams nationally to have had four different 100-yard rushers this season and the only team nationally with four 500+ yard rushers.
• Auburn has scored at least 30 points in six consecutive games for the first time since 2004. Georgia enters this week allowing 20.4 points per game.