SEC INSIDER

Georgia-Auburn: SEC title battle starts up front

Sports Xchange

November 29, 2017 at 3:47 pm.

Nov 25, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Josh Jacobs (8) is brought down by Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Dontavius Russell (95) and defensive lineman Nick Coe (91) during the second quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 25, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Josh Jacobs (8) is brought down by Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Dontavius Russell (95) and defensive lineman Nick Coe (91) during the second quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The winner of the Southeastern Conference championship game almost certainly will move on to the four-team playoff to determine the national title.

For No. 6 Georgia and No. 2 Auburn, the stakes are clear when they meet Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And neither team will be at a lack of familiarity.

The teams met three weeks ago with Auburn (10-2) defeating the then-No. 1 Bulldogs 40-17, dominating Georgia (11-1) in basically every phase.

This time, however, there is one significant difference. Instead of playing in front of a stadium packed with Auburn fans, this contest at Mercedes-Benz figures to have a much redder tinge.

“Yeah, of course they’re going to have a crowd. There’s no doubt as far as that goes,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “This being for the SEC Championship, it’s as big as it gets, no matter revenge or not and all that. We’re expecting their best.

“You’re talking about one of the more talented teams in all of college football and very talented on both sides of the football. I think they’ve got excellent staff, and their head coach has won a lot of games.”

Crowd or no crowd, if the Bulldogs want to win, they will have to execute much better than they did the last time the sides met. Auburn dominated both lines of scrimmage, which led to big days from running back Kerryon Johnson (32 carries for 167 yards) and quarterback Jarrett Stidham (214 passing yards and three scores).

There might be another significant difference in the rematch.

Johnson, who has worked his way into at least the fringes of the Heisman Trophy discussion, sustained a shoulder injury last week in a win over then-No. 1 Alabama. No definite answer on his status likely will be forthcoming before the end of the week and maybe not until kickoff.

He has rushed for 1,276 yards in just 10 games, having missed two to a hamstring injury. In the past four games, since backfield mate Kamryn Pettway went down with a shoulder injury, Johnson has rushed for 553 yards and three of his 17 touchdowns. He also has made 13 of his 21 receptions over that span with both of his scores.

Auburn’s defense has been top-notch, too. The Tigers held Georgia’s league-leading rushing attack (265.7 yards per game) to a mere 46 yards. Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb has 1,098 yards this season. Fellow senior Sony Michel has rushed for 903 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“When you don’t get movement up front, it’s tough. It’s tough sledding, especially in our league,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I think Sony and Nick, they understood going into that game it was going to be tough. I certainly didn’t expect it to be that tough, but it’s one of the things that we’ve moved on past that.

“We’re focused on this opportunity, and those two guys will be at their best, I know that, because they’re competitors and they’ll give us everything they’ve got.”

Johnson said the Bulldogs can count on that from Auburn, too.

“Obviously, we’re playing better, they’re playing better. They’re doing things different, we do things different,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of weird. But you’ve got to lock in, and at the end of the day, you’ve got to go in there and give 100 percent effort, and I believe the rest plays itself out.”

The Auburn defense also made it difficult for Georgia true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm in the first meeting. The Tigers sacked him four times and held him to 13-of-28 passing for 184 yards.

It has taken Smart just two years, though, to get the Bulldogs into the championship game for the first time since 2012.

Just don’t ask if he is surprised to see the opportunity come so soon.

“Everybody wants to say that this is the schedule. There is no schedule,” Smart said. “The only thing there is is what you have and what you do with what you have.”

Bulldogs senior linebacker Lorenzo Carter said the time is now.

“This senior class is very hungry. A lot of us came back to be able to have a chance to play for a championship,” Carter said. “We’ve already got our plaque on the wall for the SEC East, but we’re trying to keep going and keep building off of this great season.”