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SEC Championship Game Primer

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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For the first time since 2013, ironically the last time Auburn put together a late-season run to the league title, the SEC Championship Game will be winner-take-all for a shot at the national championship.

For the first time since 2013, ironically the last time Auburn put together a late-season run to the league title, the SEC Championship Game will be winner-take-all for a shot at the national championship. That year, the Tigers outscored Missouri, 59-42, in the highest-scoring SEC Championship Game ever. Can Georgia and Auburn match the fireworks of four years ago on Saturday?

Rematches in SEC Championship Games are rare. Yes, it happened five times in six years from 1999-2004, but has only happened once since 2004, when Auburn hammered South Carolina 10 weeks after a narrow home victory over the Gamecocks. Georgia has played in an SEC Championship Game rematch just once – a 2003 loss to LSU that was much less competitive than the ‘Dawgs’ loss to the Bayou Bengals earlier that season.

The burden to make adjustments falls on Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs, who saw their unbeaten season come to a convincing end three weeks ago in Jordan-Hare Stadium. What Auburn is doing is working, as the Tigers beat two No. 1 teams by a combined 35 points in the regular season’s final month. Also favoring the Tigers is that the “it’s hard to beat a team twice in the same season” bit is a myth. Teams that won the first meeting are 5-1 in SEC Championship Game rematches.

The Vitals

(6) Georgia vs. (2) Auburn

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET

Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta, Georgia)

TV: CBS (Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson)

Line: Auburn -2

Most Recent SEC title: Georgia– 2005 (def. LSU); Auburn– 2013 (def. Missouri)

Last Meeting: Auburn 40, Georgia 17 (Nov. 11, 2017 in Auburn)

5 Things I Want To Know

1. How healthy is Kerryon Johnson?

There’s little doubt that Johnson will play, but the bigger question surrounds if his effectiveness can match that of the first meeting, when he shredded Georgia for 167 yards. Ball security could be an issue with a shoulder injury, but Johnson’s productivity will likely be a matter of pain tolerance from the repeated pounding that the Bulldogs will dish out. Johnson’s legs are still fully functional, and it’s his quickness and sudden-change ability that could give Georgia fits once again.

2. Will Georgia put more on Jake Fromm?

7, 9, 3, 10, 1, 8, 15, 9, 1, 16. Those were Georgia’s yards to gain on third down in the first meeting while the game was still at least reasonably competitive. Seven of eleven third-down attempts were seven yards or longer. That’s not good enough. Fromm has to avoid third-and-longs against an Auburn defense that will feast when Georgia is in obvious passing situations. Whether it comes from short passes on first down, or from the offensive line getting more of a push in the running game than it could muster three weeks ago, when Georgia averaged 1.4 yards per carry, it’s imperative if the Bulldogs are to crack the 20-point barrier.

3. Can the Tigers offensive line keep rolling?

The Tigers put up more than 400 yards on the ground in its wins over Georgia and Alabama. That’s pretty mind-boggling given the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide rank No. 12 and No. 4 nationally against the run. Herb Hand’s unit is a veteran group with four senior starters that is playing great as individuals, but even better as a collective unit. Soon-to-be Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith and the rest of Georgia’s linebackers are fantastic, but if the offensive line is getting to the second level, their effectiveness will again be reduced.

4. Will Kirby’s complaining help?

CBS analyst Gary Danielson noted last week during that Iron Bowl that Kirby Smart submitted clips to the SEC office of what he thought were uncalled defensive holding penalties on Auburn in the first meeting. This is far from unprecedented, but it's notable nevertheless. Good coaches know how to work officials to their advantage, more so in basketball, but in football too. Keep an eye early on how physical Auburn’s defensive backs are, and whether or not Georgia is drawing any flags.

5. How high will the winner be ranked on Sunday?

Auburn isn’t going to surpass Clemson, assuming the orange and purple Tigers win the ACC title, so the blue and orange Tigers are probably maxed out at their current No. 2 perch. Georgia will enter the Top 4 if it wins, jumping both the Tigers and Alabama, but could it sneak ahead of a 13-0 Wisconsin or a 12-1 Oklahoma? My guess is no. If Georgia wins, and favorites Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State all are victorious, the Bulldogs are probably headed to Pasadena for a very interesting date with the Sooners, with Clemson taking on either Alabama or Ohio State.

Trivia Time (answers below)

1. Gus Malzahn won the SEC Championship Game in his first season as Auburn head coach. What four coaches won it in their second season at a school?
2. Who is the last transfer quarterback to win an SEC Championship Game?
3. What three coaches have led their alma maters to SEC Championship Game victories?

Prediction

Georgia had been struggling bit down the stretch, but played a complete game last week in dominating Georgia Tech on the road. Auburn was even better, of course, in rolling past Alabama, which is why the Tigers are a slim favorite for the first rendition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry in an SEC Championship Game.

Fromm has plateaued a bit, but he’s going to have to play his best game of the year for Georgia to advance. His counterpart, Jarrett Stidham is completely locked in right now, having completed at least 68 percent of his passes in each of the Tigers’ last five games.

Auburn won’t run as well as it did three weeks ago, but it won’t matter. Stidham will make the necessary tight, intermediate throws to allow for sustained drives, and the Georgia offense simply isn’t explosive enough to keep up. The Tigers roll on to the College Football Playoff.

Pick: Auburn 27, Georgia 17

Non-SEC Predictions

ACC Championship Game (at Charlotte): Clemson (-9) 28, Miami (FL) 7
American Championship Game (at Orlando): Memphis (+7) 38, UCF 35
Big 12 Championship Game (at Arlington): Oklahoma (-7) 45, TCU 31
Big Ten Championship Game (at Indianapolis): Ohio State (-6) 24, Wisconsin 20
Conference USA Championship Game (at Boca Raton): FAU (-11.5) 49, North Texas 37
MAC Championship Game (at Detroit): Toledo (-21.5) 33, Akron 14
Mountain West Championship Game (at Boise): Boise State (-9) 27, Fresno State 24
Pac-12 Championship Game (at Santa Clara): USC (-4) 27, Stanford 21

Trivia Answers:

1. Nick Saban (LSU, 2001), Mark Richt (Georgia, 2002), Urban Meyer (Florida, 2006), Gene Chizik (Auburn, 2010)
2. Jake Coker (Alabama, 2015 – transferred from Florida State)
3. Steve Spurrier (Florida, 1993-97), Phillip Fulmer (Tennessee, 1997-98) and Mike DuBose (Alabama, 1999)

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.