AUBURN, Ala. — The line of Georgia’s detractors could probably wrap around Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium this Saturday and Steve Spurrier would probably be at the front of it.
“They lost to us by four touchdowns,” the South Carolina coach would shout. “They didn’t have to play Alabama or LSU from the West; they got Florida the week after the Gamecocks had softened them up.” And so on.
But all the squawking won’t change this fact: No. 5 Georgia will be the Eastern Division representative in the SEC Championship game if it can get by a troubled Auburn team Saturday on The Plains. And for the Bulldogs, who would be playing in the Georgia Dome for the second year in a row, that accomplishment is not one to be diminished.
“I don’t think the average fan realizes how tough it is every game,” said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who was sacked five times just last week against Ole Miss. “I’m not belittling other conferences, but this isn’t the Big 12 or Big Ten or Pac-12 or whatever they are now. This is SEC. It’s tough to win the East or the West.”
First things first. The Bulldogs can’t do anything until they’ve renewed their spot in the Deep South’s oldest rivalry. Georgia and Auburn will play a football game for the 116th time since 1892 Saturday at 7 p.m. in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN2. And that’s not some minor obstacle.
The Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) are two-touchdown favorites, understandable considering Auburn (2-7, 0-6 SEC) is winless in conference play and coach Gene Chizik’s dismissal reportedly already is being planned. But the series wouldn’t be as tight as it is – Auburn leads 54-53-8 – if the underdog didn’t trip up the favorite every once in a while.
In fact, the Georgia-Auburn rivalry has decided the conference fate of the respective teams, whether for a division crown or an overall title, 20 times since the first year of SEC football in 1933. The Bulldogs are 11-8-1 in those games, and the trail of heartbreak is well worn and littered with unclaimed hardware.
In all, the Tigers have denied Georgia an SEC title of some sort nine times. It started that very first year in 1933, when Auburn won 14-6 in Columbus to knock the Bulldogs’ out of the first-ever SEC championship.
It has gone the other way as well. As recent as 2006, Georgia brought a 6-4 team to Auburn to face the fifth-ranked Tigers (9-1), who were still in the national championship picture. But a freshman quarterback named Matthew Stafford and a defensive back named Tra Battle led the Bulldogs to a 37-15 victory and Auburn’s SEC hopes were ruined.
That’s why Richt laughed out loud when asked this week whether there was any danger his 8-win Bulldogs could overlook the 2-win Tigers.
“Oh, no,” he scoffed. “Are you kidding me? There’s no chance. No chance.”
Adding yet another wrinkle to this year’s proceedings is the behind-the-scenes maneuverings at Auburn. According to news reports citing high-level sources, Auburn president Jay Gogue has already made the decision to fire Chizik at the end of the season.
If that’s the case, it would be one of the fastest falls from grace we’ve seen in college football. Less than two years ago, Chizik was hoisting the crystal football symbolizing the BCS national championship. But on his radio show Thursday night, Tiger Talk, Chizik sounded resigned to that fate.
“Our team really feels a responsibility to go out there and play extremely hard for our fan base, the rivalry and for Auburn,” Chizik said on the air. “With the circumstances of the season, and us understanding we have three opportunities left and we’ll never be together again, I think that’s another case in point for our guys to go out there and have a blast.”
Therein lay the question: How will Auburn play amidst all its internal adversity? Richt and the Bulldogs think they know the answer.
“We don’t expect anything different,” Richt said. “We’ve been recruiting against Auburn for years; we know they’ve got great players. We know that they have outstanding coaches and we have a lot of respect for them. We know that the rivalry certainly brings the best out of both teams. So we’re expecting quite a challenge and quite a battle.”
If Georgia wins, there are many who will say it beat yet another bad team and “backed into” the league championship yet again. But you can be sure the Bulldogs won’t see it that way.
“I just don’t think people know the blood, sweat and tears that goes into it all year long,” junior defensive tackle Garrison Smith said. “All the practice hours, the meeting hours, the workouts, and you’ve got to balance all that with school. There’s just so much that goes into it behind the scenes. It’s not just showtime on Saturday. It’s hard.”