No. 10 Georgia (7-2, 4-2 SEC) vs. No. 18 Auburn (7-3, 4-2 SEC)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. (CBS, Radio: 940-AM)
Stadium: Sanford Stadium (92,746)
Kickoff weather: High of 69, low of 40, sunny, 10 percent chance of rain
Series: Auburn leads 53-49-8
Odds: Georgia favored by 2
Injuries: Georgia: Out: S Quintin Banks (knee), LB Chris Gaunder (knee); Doubtful: S Donavon Baldwin (hip), Questionable: DT Kade Weston (ankle); Probable: RB Thomas Brown (collarbone), S Kelin Johnson (knee), WR Tony Wilson (shoulder). Auburn: Out: LB Craig Stevens (ankle), RB Tristan Davis (foot); Probable: OL Ryan Pugh (ankle), TE Gabe McKenzie (ankle), RB Brad Lester (groin), K Wes Byrum (leg).
Georgia probably will get Thomas Brown back in its rotation, which will take some of the pressure off Knowshon Moreno. That should only help Moreno who has tired at times in the last three games, according to his coaches. Head coach Mark Richt has dodged questions all week about how he will rotate his two backs, but it’s hard to imagine that Moreno won’t still get the bulk of the work. Auburn will bring a stable of solid backs to Athens, and two of them (Lilburn’s Brad Lester and Hampton’s Mario Fannin) are Georgia natives. Lester is listed as the starter, but he is third on the team in rushing behind Ben Tate (721 yards) and Mario Fannin (430 yards). Lester, though, has only played in four games and his 82.5 yards per game leads the team. “All three of those guys run very much like all the backs they’ve had their that I’ve experienced,” Richt said. “They are hard-running, physical, tough guys.” Like Georgia, Auburn starts three freshmen on the offensive line. The difference is all three of the Tigers’ are first-year freshmen.
Georgia may have found the secret to getting the best out of Matthew Stafford. In the last two games, the Bulldogs have allowed Stafford unprecedented freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. It has helped the whole offense perform better and has made Stafford sharper. He has completed 60 percent of his passes and thrown for five touchdowns in those games. Georgia fans also must be wondering if they are looking at the same wide receiving corps, a group that has caught every big pass in the last two games rather than letting them hit the ground. Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox has made it clear this week he wants to atone for last year’s game, when he completed four passes to his teammates and three to Georgia safety Tra Battle. The Bulldogs picked him off four times overall. The senior almost certainly will play better in his final Georgia-Auburn game. The Tigers’ leading receiver is Rodgeriqus Smith, a former walk-on from Georgia, who has five of Auburn’s 10 touchdown catches.
Which Georgia defense will show? The one that held Florida to 23 offensive points and sacked Tim Tebow six times or the one that allowed Troy to complete 34 passes and gain nearly 500 yards. Georgia should get help from the return of safety Kelin Johnson from a knee injury and the improving health of defensive tackle Jeff Owens’ sprained ankle, but defensive tackle Kade Weston’s availability is a question mark, and the depth at safety will be perilously thin if Johnson gets banged up again, which he has done several times this season. The Tigers’ lead the SEC in points allowed with 14.5, and their strength is a defensive line that has gotten pressure on quarterbacks without the benefit of the blitz. Auburn is blitzing less and playing less man coverage than usual because of that fact, Richt said. Defensive end Quentin Groves may line up as an outside linebacker, which will give the Bulldogs’ a different look. “We haven’t seen him play there,” Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “I’m sure we’ll figure out something if not earlier then during the game to try to slow that down.” Auburn middle linebacker Tray Blackmon is just 10th on the team in tackles but is a wrecking ball who can create havoc.
It looks like Thomas Flowers is the Bulldogs’ new punt return man, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mikey Henderson return to that role at any point. Even if Brown returns to the offensive backfield, he isn’t expected to return to his spot as the No. 1 kickoff returner. Cornerback Asher Allen appears to have nailed down that job. He is sixth in the SEC with 25.5 yards per return and he had a 53-yarder last week against Troy. Georgia’s kicking teams have been solid but not spectacular this year, which probably makes this game even considering Auburn’s return game has been about the same. The Tigers have used five kickoff return men and three punters this year so Georgia is liable to see anything from them in those areas of the game. The Bulldogs are expecting Lester or Fannin to return kickoffs and both are solid, but Auburn’s most dangerous special teamer is punt returner Robert Dunn, who is fifth in the SEC.