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Auburn, Georgia on different tracks

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

On the surface, Auburn and Georgia share several similarities this season.

They’re both 3-3 in the SEC. They both have had their difficulties on defense, and they both could use a strong finish to the season.

But here’s where they’re markedly different heading into Saturday’s matchup at Sanford Stadium:

At Auburn, there’s hope, a sense that a new day is coming under first-year coach Gene Chizik. An eight-win season would be greeted with a bunch of approving nods. Even a seven-win season would be tolerable. It's still the honeymoon phase.

At Georgia, there’s despair. There’s anger. There’s real concern that this program is on a slippery slope to mediocrity in the SEC, a program that’s been the hallmark of consistency under Mark Richt. A seven-win season would go over about as well as a 10-year-old getting socks for Christmas.

The Tigers (7-3, 3-3 SEC) need this game to gain some momentum heading into the Alabama finale, the postseason and ultimately the offseason.

The Bulldogs (5-4, 3-3) need this game to stop the bleeding. A home loss at this juncture in the season would take the howling to a new level.

And you wonder at what point does all the negativity start to affect recruiting, which has remained strong. The Bulldogs’ 2010 class was third nationally behind only Florida and Texas in the most recent rankings by ESPN’s Scouts Inc.

As disappointing as this season has been, there are still opportunities for Georgia to right the ship a little bit. Winning out, which would entail taking down top-10 rival Georgia Tech in Atlanta, would put the Bulldogs in one of the SEC’s better bowls and extend their streak of winning at least eight games in a season to 13 straight years.

Either way, Richt has some tough decisions to make about his program and his staff.

The Georgia fans aren’t real concerned right now about keeping alive a streak of winning eight games every year.

They’re concerned about losing 45-19 to Tennessee and 41-17 to Florida. They’re concerned about losing ground in the Eastern Division. They’re concerned about this program going the way of Tennessee’s program the final few years under Phillip Fulmer.

How this Georgia team plays and competes these last three games, starting Saturday against Auburn, will go a long way toward telling you how broken (or not) this program really is.

If nothing else, the Bulldog Nation wants to see a game where Georgia comes out and tackles well, is in position to make plays, stays away from the maddening penalties and doesn’t self-destruct.

The biggest indictment against Richt is the way Georgia has continued to rack up the penalties the past two years. The Bulldogs have an SEC-high 85 penalties, which is 17 more than the next closest team. They’re averaging 77.3 penalty yards per game, which is nearly 20 yards more than the next most penalized team.

Georgia is last in the SEC in turnover margin at minus-16, which ranks the Bulldogs 119th out of 120 teams nationally. Nobody else in the SEC is even close to being that low. Ole Miss is 11th at minus-7.

Throw in the fact that the Bulldogs are 11th in the SEC in pass defense and tied for 10th in scoring defense, and it’s pretty easy to see what all the fuss is about in Athens.

Richt and the Bulldogs can’t solve all of their problems over these next few weeks.

But they can sure start chipping away at them, and that starts Saturday against Auburn.