ATHENS — Georgia looks to stay in complete control of its College Football Playoff hopes when rival Auburn arrives in town for a chilly Saturday night showdown.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) play host to the No. 24 Tigers (6-3, 3-3) at 7 p.m. at Sanford Stadium (TV: ESPN, Radio: WSB 750 AM, 95.5 FM).
Georgia beat Kentucky last Saturday 34-17 to clinch a spot in the Dec. 1 SEC Championship game where it will face Alabama, but a loss to Auburn would threaten the Bulldogs’ CFB Playoff hopes.
What’s at stake
Georgia must win the remaining three games of the regular season to stay in control of its own destiny, as far as the College Football Playoffs are concerned.
The players know it, too.
“Auburn’s trying to come up here and ruin our season, they can really destroy our season, and destroy our hopes and dreams of anything else past this game, for after the SEC Championship,” Bulldogs offensive guard Solomon Kindley said.
Georgia already has won loss — a 36-16 setback at LSU — so a second loss could prove costly even if the Bulldogs were to beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
There are currently three undefeated teams atop the CFB Playoff Rankings: Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame, and one-loss Michigan is at No. 4.
Other one loss teams that remain in contention for a CFB Playoff spot: No. 6 Oklahoma (8-1), No. 8 Washington State (8-1), No. 9 West Virginia (7-1) and No. 10 Ohio State (8-1). There’s also UCF at 8-0, currently No. 12 in the rankings.
“I feel like I’ve been getting ready for Auburn every year of my life,” Kirby Smart said this week on The Paul Finebaum Show.
“Obviously all the years playing them at Alabama, but also playing them when I played here,” Smart said. “So it seems like I haven’t had a year without Auburn in my life.”
Smart and his team have seen a lot of the rival Tigers across the line of scrimmage in the last year, too.
“ It’s the first time in a long time, probably ever, that we’ve played them three times, in what really amounts to a calendar year,” Smart said. “And these guys have a good football team. When you look at them defensively, they’re loaded up front. They’ve got a lot of big guys. They’ve got a lot of players who play a lot of snaps. I mean they’re experienced across the board.”
The Bulldogs played Auburn twice last year, both in the regular season and in the SEC Championship Game.
The Tigers beat the Bulldogs 40-17 in Auburn during the 2017 regular season, knocking Georgia out of the No. 1 spot in the CFB Playoff rankings.
The Bulldogs won a rematch in the SEC Championship Game, 28-7, advancing to play Oklahoma in a CFB Playoff Semifinal in the Rose Bowl.
Smart indicated Georgia is getting back to being as heathy as it has been since September, with junior right guard Ben Cleveland expected to play after missing the past five games with a broken fibula.
Senior center Lamont Gaillard is expected back from the hyperextended knee that sidelined him in the first quarter of the Kentucky game, while freshman guard Cade Mays is recovering from a recurring shoulder stinger.
There was some concern when quarterback Jake Fromm was seen limping and wearing a wrap on his leg at Monday’s practice, but Smart quickly put any concerns to rest.
“I think he got a bruise,” Smart said. “He got a hit on one of those plays late in the half maybe, but he’s fine. He’s running. He took all his reps.”
Smart said defensive tackle Michail Carter is back into the line rotation, but defensive end David Marshall will remain sidelined. Marshall suffered a foot injury against Vanderbilt and has missed the past three games.
The growth and development of highly touted freshman quarterback Justin Fields continues to be monitored closely after Fields came off the bench to contribute in the win at Kentucky.
Fields converted on two short-yardage runs and two third down situations in relief of starter Jake Fromm, showing his great athleticism and running skills.
“I told our guys, here’s a guy who didn’t play a snap last week, (but) you didn’t hear anything out of him, all he did is come out and work this week,” Smart said, asked about trusting Fields enough to enter him into the pivotal road game with the season on the line.
“I thought he had his best practice of the year on Tuesday and he had a good practice on Wednesday. I told them, I said, ‘Man, this guy’s practicing. He’s buying in, he’s positive, cheering on the sideline and he goes in and plays well.’ “
The Tigers are coming off back-to-back wins over Ole Miss (31-16) and Texas A&M (28-24), giving the program the most momentum it has had since opening the season 4-1 in September.
Auburn athletic director Allen Greene provided some relief for Coach Gus Malzahn earlier this week, declaring that Malzahn will return as head coach in 2019.
The Tigers’ offense has struggled to replace four of the five starting offensive line that Georgia faced last season, but Auburn’s scheme remains a challenge for defenses with motions, shifts and tempo.
“It’s going to be very important this week to communicate and watch a lot of film to understand what types of movement and shifts they do,” Georgia junior safety J.R. Reed said, “and what the checks will be in and out of those shifts.”
Auburn’s run defense is very strong, having allowed just five rushing touchdowns this season.
SEC Network analyst Chris Doering said the Tigers will take to the air early and often against Georgia.
“What they’ve done is abandoned the run,” Doering said. “They realize the offensive line isn’t good enough to move people off the line, the running running backs aren’t as good, so they’ll play to the strengths of the personnel, that’s at the receiver position. They’ve identified their playmakers.
“I think the strength of that Georgia defense is the secondary, so it will be a good matchup of strength versus strength.”
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