With so much shared history and traditions – from cross-over players and coaches down to their own versions of “Glory, Glory,” – Georgia and Auburn have mirrored each other for decades. In his post-game remarks after what would be his final Georgia-Auburn game, Mark Richt observed, “You know, we really are a lot alike.”
But the present-day versions of the programs could scarcely be more different. One program is on the upswing as a national championship contender. The other has GoFundMe accounts to buy out its coach and start over.
That was once again evident Saturday night in Georgia’s 27-10 victory, the Bulldogs’ fifth in their last six games against the Tigers and their 11th win in the last 14 meetings.
Granted, one of those Auburn wins came just one year ago – when the Tigers upset then No. 1 Georgia in maybe the most raucous Jordan-Hare Stadium atmosphere since the first Iron Bowl was played in Auburn. The Tigers stood just one win away from earning a College Football Playoff berth.
But so much has changed for both programs in the past 12 months. Georgia has won an SEC Championship Game, has played for a national championship and is back in the hunt to duplicate both feats.
Meanwhile, Auburn is 6-5 since stunning Alabama two weeks after the Georgia game and seemingly stuck with having to endure six more seasons of Gus Malzahn as head coach, or paying a hefty price to part ways.
The difference between the two programs was clear Saturday night. Auburn jumped out to a surprising 10-6 lead as Georgia’s goal-line offensive struggles continued and its defense seemed befuddled by every play Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsay dialed up.
Auburn got 111 of its yards on two early scoring drives. After that, the Tigers managed just 138 yards on six full possessions, not counting the one-play possession as the first half expired. That was similar to the script two years ago in Athens and to their second meeting last season in the SEC Championship Game
“The way we’ve played these guys traditionally, you survive the first three or four drives with Gus, then you make adjustments and you go play,” Smart said. “We did not play well early. It was sloppy.”
That didn’t come across as an intentional dig at Malzahn. But it’s certainly an indictment. If Malzahn’s Plan A doesn’t work, or ceases working, there is no Plan B.
To be clear, Georgia won in large part because it has more talent than Auburn. Playing in Athens – with Sanford Stadium rocking in the cool night air – was a distinct advantage, just as playing at Jordan-Hare was an advantage for Auburn last season.
But there’s another difference. Georgia is coached better – particularly on offense – and plays a more physical style of football. Therein lies the frustration with Malzahn.
This was the 10th game of the season for both teams. Auburn isn’t any better now than it was when the season started.
Georgia, meanwhile, has steadily improved, especially over the last four weeks since losing at LSU. That was followed by a week off, then hard-fought games against Florida, Kentucky and now Auburn.
“It has been a really big stretch of games for our players,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “It has been a tough road, consecutive games over and over after an off week. They’ve bit the bullet. They’ve played really hard through it. We haven’t played perfect. We haven’t always played smart. But we have played hard. Our goal was to go out and compete hard, put our best foot forward, and I still feel like our best football is ahead of us.”
Smart refuses to let his mind drift ahead to the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. And for good reason. No, UMass, the Dogs’ next opponent, doesn’t pose a real threat. But the next one, Georgia Tech, sure does. It’s worth noting that while Georgia has owned the in-state rivalry of late, Tech holds a two-game winning streak in Athens.
“We’re really worried about this team getting better,” Smart said. “I shouldn’t say ‘worried.’ I should say, ‘That’s the goal.’ And the message is clear to them that you’ve gotten better for three straight weeks. You’ve played pretty good football teams. You just gotta keep doing that. That’s all we can worry about. We don’t control anything else. We only control how we play.”
The players are buying in.
“We have our own history to write,” said defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. “We can’t sleep on this team worrying about the team we’re playing a few weeks from now.” “We get better every week,” said cornerback Eric Stokes, who replaced fellow freshman Tyson Campbell and made a huge play in the end zone. “Every week we’re constantly improving.”