No. 9 Auburn (7-2, 4-2 SEC) and No. 15 Georgia (7-2, 5-2) will renew one of the nation’s oldest college football rivalries on Saturday in Athens in a game that could have major implications in the SEC’s divisional races.
With an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group, here are four key storylines to watch on Saturday night.
Gurley’s return: ESPN’s Football Power Index shows Auburn has a 50.3 percent chance to win on Saturday, so this is truly a pick-’em game. The main reason for those even odds is that Georgia running back Todd Gurley will be back in the Bulldogs’ lineup after serving a four-game suspension for accepting money to sign memorabilia.
Freshman Nick Chubb was phenomenal as Gurley’s replacement, ranking 10th in the FBS in rushes per game (25.5), fourth in rushing yards per game (167.8) and tying for fifth with 17 runs of 10-plus yards during his time as the Bulldogs’ starter.
But former Heisman Trophy frontrunner Gurley brings an entirely different level of production to the offense. In case you forgot, here is what the junior star had accomplished before Georgia coach Mark Richt benched him prior to the Missouri game.
Not only is he a home-run threat -- Gurley (8.2 ypc) is on pace to become the third SEC player with at least 100 carries in a season to average at least 8 yards per carry, joining Arkansas' Felix Jones (8.7 in 2007) and Auburn's Brent Fullwood (8.3 in 1986) -- but he also possesses a remarkable ability to make something out of nothing.
That’s where the veteran Gurley truly separates himself from freshman Chubb. On runs where he is hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, Gurley still averages 4.0 yards per carry, where Chubb averages just 1.0. The average against Power Five opponents on such carries is 0.5 ypc.
Efficient Tigers offense: This isn’t just the Todd Gurley Show, however. Auburn’s offense is every bit the machine that Georgia’s is.
According to ESPN’s team efficiency rankings, Auburn has the third-most efficient offense in the FBS, trailing only Oregon and Baylor. Georgia is fifth.
That’s largely because of quarterback Nick Marshall -- a former Georgia cornerback -- Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and the other Tigers’ abilities on outside runs. On runs outside the tackles, Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (149.1) and runs of 10-plus yards (49) and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (13).
That’s an especially interesting matchup on Saturday because of Georgia’s problems against outside runs, particularly in its upset loss to Florida. The Bulldogs are allowing 6 yards per carry on runs outside the tackles (third worst in the SEC) and surrendered 392 rushing yards outside the tackles combined in their losses to Florida and South Carolina. In Georgia’s seven wins, they allowed a total of 364 yards on runs outside the tackles.
Will Georgia pass?: Largely because of its success running the ball, Georgia hasn’t shown much interest in putting the ball in the air. The Bulldogs have run on 62 percent of their offensive plays, and probably won’t alter that philosophy much with Gurley back in the lineup.
It might be a good idea for Hutson Mason to let it fly a bit more often, however. Auburn’s passing defense has been spotty at best in the last four games -- particularly last week, when Texas A&M freshman Kyle Allen tossed four touchdown passes in the first half of his SEC starting debut.
The Tigers have been especially atrocious defending receivers after completions, allowing 150.8 yards after the catch this season, the most of any SEC defense.
Mason (140-203, 1,515 yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs) has been the definition of a game manager at quarterback, but Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo might need Mason to complete a few more passes this week and see if wideouts Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett can make something happen after the catch.
Tigers’ turnover trouble: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn spoke of attempting to shake things up in practice this week in an effort to get the Tigers off to a better start.
The Tigers turned it over on their first offensive play in both of their losses this season (to Mississippi State, where it actually lost turnovers on its first two plays en route to an early 21-0 deficit, and last week against Texas A&M, when the Aggies led 35-17 at halftime) and lost five fumbles in their games against Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
Auburn has allowed an SEC-high 35 points off turnovers in its last four games and has a 2-2 record in that period. During their 5-0 start, the Tigers did not allow any points off turnovers.
Georgia is tied for the SEC lead with a plus-13 turnover margin, which is fourth nationally, and has outscored opponents 62-6 off turnovers. Only Arizona (three points) has allowed fewer points off turnovers than the Bulldogs.