Top-25 foes meet up in SEC action

Athens, GA ( – The seventh-ranked Auburn Tigers will attempt
to get back on the winning track on Saturday evening when they travel to
Sanford Stadium to take on the 16th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in SEC action.

Auburn was still in the thick of the SEC Western Division race heading into
last week’s matchup with Texas A&M, but the then-No. 3 team in the nation lost
at home to the unranked Aggies, 41-28, to fall to 7-2.

“We have a lot of disappointed players in that locker room,” Auburn coach Gus
Malzahn said following the loss. “I just told them we are going to stick
together and we are not going to blame it on any one person. We fought hard,
we just didn’t get it done at the end.”

At 4-2 in league play, the Tigers will need a lot of help down the stretch to
repeat as SEC West champions.

Georgia took a step backward in the SEC Eastern Division following Nov. 1 loss
to Florida (38-20), but it bounced back in a big way last weekend with a 63-31
rout of Kentucky to improve to 7-2 and 5-2 in the league. The Bulldogs are a
game behind Missouri (4-1) in the loss column in the standings but have a
head-to-head win over the Tigers (34-0 on Oct. 11) in their pocket.

“It’s going to be nice to be home,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It’ll end
up being about a 42-day span from the last time we played at Sanford Stadium.
I’m glad…we can get home with a little bit of time to regroup and rest
before we start getting cranked up on that plan for Auburn.”

In the seventh most played rivalry in FBS history, Auburn has the narrowest of
edges over Georgia, 55-54-8. The Tigers took the series lead with a 43-38 home
win last season.

Auburn’s offense (38.7 ppg, 506.9 ypg) has been outstanding all season long
and is one of the nation’s most balanced with 220.4 passing and 286.4 rushing
yards per game. In a comeback effort last weekend, the unit amassed 582 yards
and 31 first downs.

Quarterback Nick Marshall is most dangerous outside of the pocket with 698
rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, but he has taken strides as a passer this
season. He’s completing 61 percent of his throws for 1,576 yards with 14
touchdowns to just four interceptions.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran wild on the Aggies with 221 yards and two touchdowns
on 30 carries. The workhorse back is one of the nation’s best, ranking seventh
in the FBS is carries (208) and 11th in yards (1,190) while scoring nine

The unit suffered a blow when D’haquille Williams (38 receptions, 609 yards,
five TDs) was lost to a knee injury in the Texas A&M game. In his absence,
Quan Bray (25 receptions, 287 yards) and Sammie Coates (20 receptions, 416
yards, two TDs) will need to step up their play.

The once-promising Tigers defense (24.1 ppg, 386.3 ypg) has fallen off
drastically since a hot start, as the unit has given up 35 points or more in
four straight games and allowed a true freshman quarterback to rack up four
touchdowns last week on its home field.

Johnathan Ford (65 tackles, two INTs) and Cassanova McKinzy (64 tackles, 8.5
TFL, INT) are the top tacklers. Jonathan Jones has picked off five passes
while adding another seven pass breakups. Jermaine Whitehead and JaViere
Mitchell also have multiple interceptions.

Georgia’s offense has been just as effective as Auburn’s this season, putting
up 453.2 ypg while ranking seventh in the nation in scoring (43.0 ppg), aided
by a 63-point outburst last week. The unit will get a boost for this matchup
with the return of one of the nation’s best players.

After serving a four-game suspension, Todd Gurley will make his highly
anticipated return to action. Once considered a Heisman frontrunner, Gurley
has 773 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in just five games.

“We think he’s definitely got fresh legs,” Richt said. “I think he stayed in
really good condition during the time he wasn’t playing. I don’t think you
forget how to play football in five weeks or forget how to run it the way he
runs it…I think it’ll come back to him pretty quick.”

In Gurley’s absence, Nick Chubb (895 yards, seven TDs) stepped up in a big way
and will likely continue to see plenty of action.

With such a potent rushing attack, quarterback Hutson Mason isn’t asked to do
much but he’s nonetheless been effective, completing 69 percent of his passes
for 1,515 yards, 19 touchdowns (four rushing) and just three interceptions. He
threw four touchdowns a week ago on just 16 attempts.

Chris Conley has been a big-play receiver on minimal opportunities, catching
25 passes for 443 yards and five scores. Michael Bennett has a team-best 30
receptions for 302 yards and four scores.

The Bulldogs’ defense has been more than good enough to support their
explosive offense, as they yield a mere 338.0 ypg and 23.2 ppg.

The strength of the unit comes at linebacker, where Amarlo Herrera (75
tackles, 8.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks), Ramik Wilson (72 tackles, 6.0 TFL, sack) and
Jordan Jenkins (50 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks, FF, two fumble recoveries)
could all be in for All-Conference honors at year’s end. Damian Swann (43
tackles) is active in the turnover battle with three picks and two forced