AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Kirby Smart’s no stranger to helping manage a team that sails into November with national championship prospects. It’s new territory for the Georgia Bulldogs, though.
The No. 2 Bulldogs, perched atop the playoff rankings for the second straight week, put that status to the test Saturday against No. 10 Auburn.
Smart was a Nick Saban assistant on four national championship teams at Alabama, meaning he’s been in Jordan-Hare Stadium for a high-stakes rivalry game a few times.
”I think the experience does help,” he said. ”I think a veteran team that has had it happen before usually manages it better than a team for the first time. Sometimes it can work in reverse where you come to expect that and you get comfortable with that and you don’t respect it.
”Our kids have taken ownership. They have really tried to own the burden of this by preparing the right way.”
The Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) have already secured the Eastern Division title and a spot in the league championship game. But that mostly unchallenged march through the SEC has led to Auburn (7-2, 5-1, No. 10 CFP) and the first opponent ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the game.
The slim favorites have produced a 20-19 road win over current No. 3 Notre Dame , though.
The Tigers have rallied from a loss to LSU to win two straight. With No. 1 Alabama and the Iron Bowl awaiting in the regular-season finale, they’re nursing playoff aspirations of their own if they can pull off the upsets and beat Georgia a second time.
”We control our own destiny,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. ”This is a huge game, obviously, and our guys are excited. They’ve earned the right to be here in this moment.”
Auburn managed what Malzahn deemed its best response to adversity within a game this season last week against Texas A&M , something he admits the team hasn’t always handled well. The Tigers flopped in their two biggest games, giving up 11 sacks against Clemson and blowing a 20-0 lead against LSU.
Here are some things to watch in the Georgia-Auburn game:
GEORGIA’S 1-2-3 PUNCH: The Bulldogs lead the SEC and rank eighth nationally with an average of 279.3 yards rushing per game. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel comprise one of college football’s best duos, providing an inside-outside game that is tough to stop. Chubb has rumbled for 867 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry, while Michel has totaled 710 yards, nine TDs and a 7.9-yard average.
KERRYON, AUBURN: Auburn counters with Kerryon Johnson, who’s leading the SEC in rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns (15). He’s more of a one-man show with Kamryn Pettway sidelined by a shoulder injury. ”He is running wild on people,” Smart said. Kam Martin did log 13 carries against Texas A&M and has had success when called upon.
YOUNG QBS: Since taking over in the season opener, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has played with a poise of a veteran. Taking advantage of all the weapons around him, Fromm has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,459 yards, with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. The youngster is moving closer and closer to joining an extremely small club. Jamelle Holieway is only true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national championship, accomplishing the feat in 1985 at Oklahoma.
Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham has been similarly efficient the past two games but struggled badly against LSU and Clemson.
BIG PLAY DEFENDERS: Both teams have some big-play potential even when the other team has the ball. Georgia’s Roquan Smith is one of the nation’s top linebackers, wreaking havoc in the middle of the field. Auburn’s Jeff Holland is tied for the SEC leads with eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
ROAD TEAM ADVANTAGE: Both teams have winning records visiting the other’s home stadium. The Tigers are 18-14 in Athens while Georgia is 16-11-2 at Auburn. The Bulldogs have won seven of their last 10 games at Jordan-Hare.
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Athens, Georgia contributed to this report.
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