ATLANTA -- With the approaching of the SEC championship game on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, inquiring minds around college football wish to know a couple of things: Can the Georgia Bulldogs avenge a 23-point beatdown less than three weeks ago at Auburn, and will they actually do so?
Yes and yes.
Auburn is no joke. Just ask Alabama, which couldn't survive the Tigers last weekend on the road in the Iron Bowl as the defending national champion and the nation's No. 1 team. Auburn's two losses were by a combined 12 points after trips to Clemson and LSU, and let's just say the locals around both places don't call their home stadiums "Death Valley" for nothing. Then there is history, which leans toward Auburn over Georgia. When LSU grabbed the SEC title in 2001 over Tennessee despite losing earlier that year in Knoxville, Tenn., it was the only time out of the six rematches in the 26-year-old championship game that didn't see a sweep by the earlier winner.
So I guess a wise man would switch to picking Auburn, especially when you consider the Tigers have spent two out of the past three Saturdays shocking the elite of the elite. Before they whacked in-state rival Alabama, they hosted a Georgia bunch sitting atop the College Football Playoff rankings. That was until they crushed the Bulldogs so badly on offense, defense and special teams that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was caught on videotape saying in his postgame locker room, "We whipped the dog crap out of them, didn't we?"
Hmmmm. I'm sticking with Georgia. For starters, those around the Bulldog Nation would sue Kirby Smart for dereliction of duty as head coach if he didn't sprinkle his X's and O's this week with more than a few references to Malzhan's tongue while reminding everybody in his world about Georgia's ugliness at Auburn that led to its only loss this season.
"Yeah, revenge, we look back at it, and we see what we've done," said Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter this week on a conference call with the national media, and then he caught himself. I'm guessing he heard Smart screaming in his subconscious, because here's something else you must do as a head coach when your team has set itself up to be mocked: Order your players to keep that "revenge" stuff in their hearts, but out of their mouths. As a result, Carter quickly added, "Coming into it, we really don't try to focus too much on (revenge) because, like Coach Smart tells us, we don't try to put a lot of emotional energy into games because that will drain you out. That will have you tired in the fourth quarter when you really need it."
I don't buy that, and neither should you. The Bulldogs will play out of their minds on Saturday, from the opening kickoff until they earn one of those four spots in the College Football Playoff by improving to 12-1 for the season.
We'll stick to the psychological for a moment. Entering the Auburn game, Georgia used its mighty running attack of future Pro Bowl players Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and a suffocating defense to obliterate seven opponents in a row after winning a 20-19 thriller at Notre Dame. It's just that four of those teams had losing records, and one was Samford, a FCS team that Georgia shouldn't have played anyway.
The Bulldogs did crush a Mississippi State team that was 3-0, and they won by a couple of touchdowns over a decent South Carolina.
Still, the Auburn loss helped Georgia more than those victories over the weak and the pitiful, because it killed whatever overconfidence lurked around the Bulldogs' locker room. Down went Kentucky by 29 points in the aftermath before they showed Saturday their yearly matchup against Georgia Tech isn't much of a rivalry with a 38-7 victory. In both games, Chubb and Michel went nuts on the ground. Not only that, but Jake Fromm looked nothing like the freshman quarterback that he is, the special teams were mostly special and the Steel Curtain was nearly reincarnated through the Georgia defense, with extraordinary linebacker Roquan Smith leading the way.
To translate, these Bulldogs weren't the ones that were strikingly overmatched and overwhelmed against Auburn in the trenches.
"Well, I think the biggest thing is just being honest. I mean, you don't shake a memory," Smart said, doing a rarity by slipping away from coach speak during his portion of that national media session. "You put it in their face, and you challenge people. You play more physical. Strike people to get off blocks. If you're on offense, you've got to strike people to stay on blocks. Fundamentally, we've got to play better than we played last time. And obviously, we've got to play with more discipline and composure to avoid the knucklehead decisions we had in the game. You can't give good teams things. If you give them things, it makes it twice as hard. They're already good enough and talented enough that you don't have to give them anything. They can earn a lot, but you can't give them things on top of it. The physicality will be really important in this game."
Several things here. There were a slew of "knucklehead" decisions by Georgia against Auburn. Special-team gaffes contributed to a couple of Auburn touchdowns after the Bulldogs fumbled away a punt return and suffered a personal-foul penalty of 15 yards. In addition, with Georgia's offensive line collapsing for the first time this season, Fromm was sacked four times, and the Bulldogs finished with seven penalties overall for 75 yards.
None of that helped Georgia against Auburn during that previous meeting, and neither did this number: 46.
That was the Bulldogs' rushing total back then, and even with that, they've remained among the nation's top 10 teams in run offense all season. They'll go into Saturday's game ranked ninth in the country with an average of 266 yards rushing per game.
I'm guessing Chubb, Michel and their impressive backups will have Georgia closer to that 266 number than to 46. There's also more to consider. Fromm was just named SEC Freshman of the Week after completing 75 percent of his passes against Georgia Tech (12 of 16 for 224 yards and two touchdowns) to show the Bulldogs aren't as one-dimensional on offense anymore. You have to think they won't be as spooked into sloppiness as they were at absolutely bonkers Auburn, especially since this game is in Atlanta, which sits in the heart of the Bulldog Nation with Athens 70 miles to the East. You also have to think that, even if splendid Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson is healed from the shoulder injury he suffered against Alabama, he won't come close to torching Georgia again with 167 yards rushing.
"I just know for sure that they're going to bring it," Auburn linebacker Tre' Williams told the national media. "Like no matter what, they're going to bring their 'A' game, so we're going to have to prepare like we've never played them, because Georgia is a really good team. And we put the first game behind us, and we just know they're going to bring their 'A-1' game."
That's why I'm picking the Bulldogs.