Although both teams seem out of the hunt for the College Football Playoff, there's plenty on the line in the SEC race when the Georgia Bulldogs and Auburn Tigers square off Saturday. Here are three people who will be key to the game.
The last time Georgia faced a team ranked as highly as No. 9 Auburn at home, good things happened for the Bulldogs. Justin Scott-Wesley caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Murray in the final two minutes last September to help Georgia down sixth-ranked LSU 44-41.
After four straight games away from Sanford Stadium this season, the 15th-ranked Dawgs are hoping their homecoming Saturday is a sign of things to come.
“We’re all pretty pleased to be home again,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week. “We haven’t played a game in a long time at home. It’ll be 42-day span from the last time we got to play here between the hedges. I think there’s a good vibe with that.”
Who holds the edge when Auburn ventures to Georgia in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry? Here are three names to watch for Saturday’s matchup.
1. Todd Gurley
Gurley hasn’t suited up since Georgia faced Vanderbilt on Oct. 4, but Richt said sitting out the rest of the year to protect his promising NFL future wasn’t an option.
“It may have crossed his mind, but he didn’t act like it crossed his mind,” Richt said. “He wanted to be with his teammates from the very beginning when it came to practice. When he heard the news, it was minutes before practice, and his first reaction was, ‘I want to be out there in practice with my teammates.’”
Georgia’s best player was suspended four games for accepting money from multiple individuals in exchange for his autograph over a two-year period. Prior to his suspension, Gurley was a Heisman candidate and had reeled off 94 carries for 773 yards (8.2 per carry) and eight rushing touchdowns through five games. He also returned three kickoffs, including taking one kick 100 yards for a touchdown against Clemson.
But the Dawgs’ offense didn’t lose its footing in Gurley’s absence, except against Florida. Georgia went 3-1 with the one loss to the Gators in Jacksonville when the Bulldogs scored just 20 points. Freshman running back Nick Chubb shined in Gurley’s absence, averaging 168 rushing yards and 6.6 yards per carry in the four-game stretch. Georgia still ranks first in the SEC in yards per carry (6.2) and rushing touchdowns (28) this season. Inserting Gurley back into the lineup is more of a luxury than a scheme shift for Richt and his coaching staff.
The Bulldogs are a tough draw for an Auburn defense that’s struggled of late. The Tigers have given up 36 points per game in their last four games and gone 2-2. Auburn lost its first home game under Gus Malzahn last week, a 41-38 result to then-unranked Texas A&M. Now the Tigers defense must face a Georgia unit that could be revitalized with the return of Gurley, and it must forget its performance against the Aggies.
“The fact that we’ve got Georgia, one of our rivals, this week, it’s been a little bit easier to put that behind us,” Malzahn said. “Our guys know that we have to play well, and we still have a whole lot to play for. We’re moving on, that’s behind us, and we’re looking forward.”
2. Jeremy Pruitt
Georgia’s new defensive coordinator was on Florida State’s staff when the Seminoles rallied to beat Auburn in the BCS title game in January. After the Tigers jumped out to a 21-10 halftime lead, Pruitt’s mid-game adjustments helped pave the way for the Seminoles’ 34-31 victory.
Auburn reached the end zone only once in the second half against Pruitt’s defense. The Tigers also converted only two third downs in the second half after moving the chains eight times in the first two quarters.
Can Georgia, which lost to Auburn 43-38 last year, deliver the same magic Saturday with Pruitt on staff?
“Well,” Richt said, “we’ll find out, won’t we?”
Pruitt might not have the same talent he worked with last season in Tallahassee. The Dawgs rank fifth in the SEC in total defense, allowing 4.9 yards per play, but they’ve given up 38 points in each of their losses. Florida, in particular, gashed Pruitt’s run defense for 418 rushing yards, the Gators’ most in an SEC game since 1975.
Georgia should have its hands full with an Auburn team that averages a league-best 286.4 yards per game on the ground, or 5.9 per carry. The Tigers also rank second in the country in third-down conversion percentage (55 percent). They’ll likely be without leading receiver Duke Williams due to injury, however, which could throw a wrench in quarterback Nick Marshall’s passing plan.
But regardless of Pruitt’s presence on the sideline, Richt said execution is the key.
“Obviously when you have some insight to a team, it can help you plan and help you get the best plan together,” Richt said. “But it’s going to come down to how we tackle and how we play our gaps properly and how we are disciplined in the things that we do. Those are the things that are going to matter the most.”
This summer Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee didn’t seem concerned with the loss of Tre Mason, a Heisman finalist and the team’s top running back. One of the reasons why was Cameron Artis-Payne.
“Cameron Artis-Payne has good every-down back ability,” Lashlee told SI.com in July. “He can really run downhill between the tackles.”
Artis-Payne has developed into one of the country’s most durable backs this season. Consequently, Auburn’s running game hasn’t lost its punch. Artis-Payne’s 1,190 rushing yards currently lead all SEC players, an interesting wrinkle this week considering Gurley might hold the lead if not for his suspension. Artis-Payne isn’t exactly a household name in SEC country.
A look at the numbers suggests that’s an oversight. Through nine games last season, Mason averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 161 carries. Artis-Payne is averaging an identical 5.7 yards per carry on 208 rushes this year.
“There are similarities,” Malzahn said. “They’re both extremely tough guys. They both run in between the tackles extremely well. Tre’s a little bit different than Cam. Cam does a lot of little things good like Tre does, but they’re a little bit different.”
Marshall is often the headliner of Auburn’s offense, but how Georgia handles Artis-Payne could go a long way toward containing the Tigers’ attack. His 221 yards against Texas A&M were the most by an SEC player this year, and no Auburn player has rushed for more yards through nine games since 2000.
The Dawgs found success against two of the SEC’s top five rushers, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, in Georgia’s matchup with Arkansas on Oct. 18. Georgia’s defensive line held the Razorbacks duo to a combined 139 yards, more than 50 below their average, and the Hogs lost 45-32. But Richt knows his team might not face a more efficient runner this year than Artis-Payne.
“He’s just a great workhorse of a back,” Richt said. “He’s tough, he’s got all the attributes you’d want in a great back: the ability to make people miss, get yards after contact, catch the ball well, protect well. He’s very outstanding.”