ATHENS, Ga. -- When asked earlier this week about areas his team sought to improve during its open week, Auburn coach Gene Chizik immediately discussed the Tigers' woes on third down.
Auburn has struggled on third down on both offense and defense, ranking last in the SEC in third-down defense by allowing opponents to achieve a first down 46.6 percent of the time while ranking eighth on offense by converting 37.1 percent.
Improving in that area is paramount, Chizik said, if the No. 24 Tigers (6-3, 4-2 SEC) are to win their remaining games, starting this weekend with a visit to No. 14 Georgia (7-2, 5-1).
"Certainly third-down conversions offensively, being able to stay on the field and continue some drives and possess the football, I think that's definitely something that we really need to be able to do to have a chance to win these last couple of games," Chizik said.
Georgia coach Mark Richt can attest to the difference improvements in that area can make. The Bulldogs struggled at third-down defense a year ago but made it a point of emphasis in the offseason and addressed some defensive needs. Now, they are reaping the benefits of their work.
The Bulldogs are second in the SEC and third in the nation in allowing opponents to convert only 28 percent of third downs, which Richt said is the most important difference in this year's Bulldogs over last year's club that finished with a 6-7 record.
Georgia is third in the league in total defense and rushing defense and second against the pass, but its success on third down impacts all of those statistics, Richt said.
"Our third-down conversions might be the most striking difference from a year ago statistically. We weren't very good at getting people off the field and now we are," Richt said. "That's really another reason why you don't see as many rushing yards, because we are getting them off the field, and when you do that, they aren't scoring."
Running backs speak
Isaiah Crowell and Carlton Thomas, two of Georgia's running backs who were suspended for last week's game against New Mexico State, met with the media Tuesday night for the first time since their suspension but did not discuss what caused their one-game absence.
"It was a learning experience," said Crowell, who leads the Bulldogs with 689 rushing yards. "It just showed me what I had at stake, what could happen to me. I've just got to move on from it."
Thomas, who is third on the team with 200 rushing yards, apologized to Georgia's fan base for having served a second one-game suspension this season.
"I really want to apologize to the Bulldog nation in general," Thomas said. "It is my second one, and even though it is two mistakes, I feel like the nation's still behind us, and that's something to be thankful for and pretty much move on. You make mistakes and you don't just stay down from them. You move on and you learn."
Richt said at his Tuesday news conference that Crowell will return to his regular role as the Bulldogs' starter this week.
"Isaiah is the starter right now. I can't imagine him not being that," Richt said. "We're expecting big things from him this week. I think he will do very well in practice, and I think he will be focused and ready to go. I don't think there's any question he's learned some things through this, and there's no doubt he will be better and stronger for it."
Crowell and former Carver High School teammate Gabe Wright sat side by side last year in Columbus when they announced which colleges they would attend -- Crowell picking Georgia and Wright choosing Auburn.
This weekend they'll occupy opposite sidelines, but they are not waiting to trade some friendly trash talk.
"I know he's been talking, telling the media he knows how to stop me or whatever, but I guess we're going to have to see," Crowell said with a grin.
Asked if Wright, a defensive lineman, would be able to take him down, Crowell said, "No. He never has, never will."
Crowell grew up less than an hour from the Auburn campus in a town with a heavy orange-and-blue presence -- his high school coach, Del McGee, even played at Auburn -- but the Bulldogs freshman never felt much of an affinity for the Tigers.
He didn't try to hide that disdain on Tuesday.
"I never liked Auburn," he said. "Point blank, I never liked them."
Georgia's leading receiver Malcolm Mitchell (hamstring) practiced in a green non-contact jersey and worked with the scout team on Tuesday, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. Mitchell remains on track to play Saturday against Auburn. ... Richt did not reveal whether Georgia will rotate kickers Blair Walsh and Brandon Bogotay again this week. "I'm not going to divulge that right now because I'm not 100 percent sure," he said. ... UGA and the National Football Foundation will honor Bulldogs great Jake Scott at Saturday's game. Scott will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Dec. 6. ... Georgia punter Drew Butler is one of 13 finalists for the Wuerffel Trophy, which honors the college football player who best combines exemplary community service with outstanding academic and athletic achievement.
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.