It's make or break time for the No. 19 Georgia Bulldogs, starting with Saturday's pivotal clash against Southeastern Conference rival and No. 24 Auburn in Athens Sanford Stadium. CBS TV, beginning at 3:30 p.m. EST, will televise nationally this 105th game in the Deep South's oldest series.
By virtue of its 24-10 loss to Florida two weeks ago and the Gators win over Vanderbilt last Saturday, Georgia (5-2 overall, 4-2 SEC) is out of contention for the SEC Eastern Division title and still needs one more win to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs will be a decisive favorite in only one of their remaining four regular season games (Auburn, Mississippi, Georgia Tech and Houston) and that will be against Houston. The other three are toss-ups. One thing is certain--the remaining regular season games will play a most crucial factor in determining what kind of season the Bulldogs wind up having.
In order for Coach Mark Richt's inaugural squad to be labeled as great, Georgia must finish 10-2. That would require the Bulldogs to win every remaining regular season contest and a New Year's Day Bowl. A 9-3 record would be considered a very good season.. To accomplish that, Georgia could lose only one more game in either the regular season or in a bowl. An 8-4 mark would be classified as a good, perhaps better than expected campaign. For that to happen, the Bulldogs would have to win at least three of their five games the rest of the way and receive a bowl invitation. Then there's the possibility of a 7-5 record, which is about what many prognosticators expected at the beginning of the season. In this scenario, the Bulldogs would lose three of their last five games, but would have played in their fifth consecutive bowl, even if it's a minor bowl. A 6-6 finish would include a minor bowl loss, and the team would be considered to have underachieved. A 5-6 record, of course, would equate to a terrible year.
The first and last scenarios seem unlikely. Chances of a 9-3, 8-4 or 7-5 finish appear greater, with 8-4, perhaps, being the most probable. A win over the Tigers should improve Georgia's chances to achieve at least one of the three scenarios.
Auburn holds a 50-46-8 lead over Georgia in a series that dates back to 1892. Surprisingly, this has not been a rivalry in which the home field advantage has played a prevalent factor in the game's outcome in recent years. Only six times since 1980 has the home team won. The Bulldogs have won only one of their past nine games against Auburn at Sanford Stadium, dating to 1983. Georgia has an overall record of 5-12-1 against Auburn since then, faring better at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium than at Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs are 4-4-1 at Auburn since '83, including 3-1-1 since '92.
This year's game should be a real battle-royal between two teams that appear closely matched. Keys to what Georgia needs to do to win follow.
* Protect Quarterback David Greene
The Georgia offensive line has played solidly this season. In fact, it has blocked extremely well and has allowed only nine sacks, which is tied for third best in the SEC (with South Carolina). Auburn is stingy against the pass, ranking fourth in the SEC (200.4 yards average per game). However, if the Bulldogs' offensive interior can do a good job protecting Greene to give him the time he needs, he may pick apart the Tigers' defense.
* Pressure Auburn Quarterback Daniel Cobb.
Georgia's defense has got to prove it can consistently get some pressure on an opposing quarterback and Georgia needs to do so against former Bulldog Cobb early in the game. Georgia ranks last in the SEC with only seven sacks in seven games. The Bulldogs' inability to get to the quarterback has put more pressure on its secondary. Defensive end Charles Grant, once considered the team's most ferocious pass rusher, doesn't have a sack in his last 14 games. Last season, cornerback Tim Wansley tied for the SEC lead with six interceptions. This year, opposing quarterbacks are staying away from Wansley and picking on first-year cornerback Bruce Thornton, a converted running back. Terreal Bierria and safety Jermaine Phillips have played well, but Georgia's cornerback play has been weak.
Cobb has not performed spectacularly. In fact, he has thrown six interceptions in the last two games. Georgia needs to force Cobb into making some bad throws and cause him to toss a couple of interceptions (or more).
* Playing much better defense.
Richt said this week that the Bulldogs defense does not stink. Nevertheless, it doesn't smell good. Consider the facts. In the last four games, Georgia's defense has allowed opponents an average of 501 yards. For the season, the Bulldogs rank 82nd in the nation in total defense, allowing 408.7 yards per game, and they rank 106th out of 117 teams against the pass, with opponents gaining 282.9 yards per game. With four games remaining, Georgia is on pace to allow nearly 4,500 yards for the season, which would be the program's highest total in over 40 years.
Granted, Georgia's defense has risen to the occasion in the Bulldogs' biggest games this season. In a 14-9 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 8, Georgia gave up only 236 yards. In a 26-24 upset win at Tennessee on Oct. 6, the Bulldogs gave up only 10 points in the final three quarters. Even when Georgia's defense gave up a whopping 584 yards in the loss to Florida two weeks ago, it forced four turnovers and held the Gators to 20 points less than their scoring average.
However, the Florida game is not necessarily a good indicator. The Bulldogs still gave up over 500 yards and the fact they held the Gators to only 20 points was more a matter of Florida stopping itself than a sterling defensive effort by Georgia. If the Bulldogs give up 500 yards to Auburn, they will almost assuredly lose.
Georgia will not be full strength defensively. Starting defensive end Bruce Adrine has been lost for the season, and Josh Mallard, the player who had been the most probable replacement for Adrine, likely will miss the Auburn game with a sprained knee. Ken Veal, a top backup at defensive tackle, is questionable with a neck injury. Richt says the Bulldogs could turn to a 3-4 alignment if they don't have enough healthy linemen to play their usual four-man front.
* Control the time of possession.
When Georgia's offense is most effective, it scores quickly. The Bulldogs rank 10th in the SEC in time of possession, which unfortunately leaves their defense on the field too long in most instances. In fact, Georgia is the only team in the conference that doesn't have a scoring drive longer than five minutes. Only 12 of the Bulldogs' 94 drives have been 10 plays or more, and they scored on only three of those. Georgia must improve its time of possession total, and the best way to do that is to run the ball well.
How many times have I written that in the last two years? Simply put, Georgia is not going to contend for any championships until the Bulldogs develop a strong running game (and play much better defense). Auburn is especially stout against the run, with opponents averaging just 109.6 rushing yards. If Georgia can move the ball on the ground, it should open up the passing lanes for Greene, improve the Bulldogs' time of possession and result in a Bulldogs' victory. The play of Georgia tailbacks Musa Smith, Jasper Sanks and fullback Verron Haynes will be critical.
* Don't commit turnovers.
This is always a key to any game, but is extremely crucial to Georgia's chances to win. A turnover will almost always decide who wins a game that is a toss-up or ha