Neither Georgia’s Kirby Smart nor Auburn’s Gus Malzahn are strangers to big games.
That’s certainly one way to describe Saturday’s showdown at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., between the top-ranked Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0 SEC) and the No. 10 Tigers (7-2, 5-1).
Georgia is rolling along, having already clinched the SEC East and in the thick of the race for one of the four playoff berths. Meanwhile, the Tigers — despite their two losses — are still very much in the picture for the SEC West crown, with an outside shot at the playoffs should they run the table and capture the SEC title.
“It’s the same challenge it is at most SEC places. It’s just a little bit louder, and they have a good team,” Smart said.
“The better the team is, the tougher the place to play is. Their fans get loud, get rowdy — they are there pregame until the end and there have been some really loud moments playing in that stadium. I would not expect it to be any different on Saturday.”
Malzahn said his Tigers are looking forward to the challenge.
“I think you have to embrace the fact that you are playing the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country on your home field,” Malzhan said.
“Our goal is to win the SEC championship, and it has been since day one, and this is the next step. It is a great opportunity for us, so it is a big game. We are not looking any farther ahead than Saturday, but this is a game we have been looking forward to, and it is here. There is a lot on the line for it. It is a good one.”
Last year’s loss to Georgia still sticks in their collective mind.
The Bulldogs beat Auburn last year in Athens 13-7 in a game in which Georgia’s only touchdown came on a pick six by Maurice Smith.
“Last year was an extremely tough loss — the fact they won the game and didn’t score an offensive touchdown,” Malzahn said. “This is one we have been waiting on. I know our players and coaches are excited about it. It is a great opportunity for us and our program. We are playing one of the best teams on our home field.”
Smart, who knows all too well what the environment is like at Auburn from his years at Alabama, said Saturday’s game will be unlike any the team has played this year.
“Obviously, the environment to play over there I have been there a lot throughout my coaching career. They get loud in there and they do a really good job of creating an environment,” Smart said. “They feed off of that. So, the challenges are in front of us. We will find out a lot about this team playing on the road.”
The Tigers’ offense has certainly been clicking since losing to LSU 27-23 on Oct. 14 in Baton Rouge. Auburn comes in having outscored Arkansas and Texas A&M by a combined 94-47 margin, numbers largely due to the play of quarterback Jarrett Stidham and running back Kerryon Johnson, who between them account for 369.4 yards of offense per game.
“At the end of the day, he can go where he wants to go with the ball. He has great speed. He gets out a lot of his runs,” Smart said of Johnson. “Last year against us he bounced out, he broke out and does a good job doing that. …
“They know the defenses we are going to play. Gus has seen the defenses we play for seven to eight years it seems like. We know the run plays they are going to run. They are not going to reinvent the wheel. We have to go out there and play blocks, tackle the man with the ball and not give up big plays.”
But big plays are exactly what the Tigers know they’ll need against a Georgia defense that’s only allowing 11.7 points per game.
“You have to figure out ways to do it. You have to figure out a way to make explosive plays,” Malzahn said. “That’s the challenge. When they can stop the run and still play two safeties, it’s tough. You have to be balanced. The more talented a defensive team is, the more important it is to be balanced.”