Uga v. Robert Baker, 1996: Another from the Pictures I Never Get Tired Of file.
What I said at the time: The home-field disadvantage, naturally, was discussed . . .
. . . just in case you need a reminder, the home team is 3-11-1 since 1992 in this series; things have improved a little lately, with the home team winning two of the last four, but Georgia still has only seven wins over Auburn since the series went home-and-home starting in 1959. And if you saw the games in Athens in 1999, 2001, and 2005 (like I did), you know that Georgia will pick the most bizarre of ways to lose this one in front of the home crowd.
. . . and at the end of a surprisingly prescient prediction, doom was foretold:
If the season plays out for the Bulldogs the way I've described it in past previews, Georgia could very well be on the cusp of an SEC East title (despite the requisite loss to Florida), meaning there will be that much more of a chance that the Dawgs' young defense will tighten up and start playing not to lose; in a scene eerily reminiscent of 2005, the Dawgs will hold a thin lead toward the end of the game but let Auburn go on a late drive (not a 62-yard fluke pass, mind you, an actual drive) that nets the game-winning field goal.
What's happened since then: Oddly enough, Georgia (7-2, 4-2 SEC) is on the cusp of an SEC East title -- after losses to South Carolina and Tennessee and big wins over Alabama and Florida, all they need (besides winning out, of course) is for Tennessee to stumble once and they're all alone on top of the East Division. Auburn appeared to have put a miserable September behind them, following up home losses to South Florida and Mississippi State with three straight SEC victories, but suffered a setback at LSU and are now 7-3, 4-2 in conference.
Care to amend your initial statement, sir?: Yes and no. At the very beginning of the season, QB Brandon Cox and his offensive line were every bit as bad as I predicted they might be, if not worse; particularly during that South Florida game, there were times when it looked like some of the offensive linemen might have had money in a What Day Does Brandon Cox Become A Paraplegic pool. Both Cox and the line have stepped their game up considerably since then, though. After throwing two picks in each of his first three games, Cox has only tossed one in his last seven, and only once in that seven-game span (Arkansas) has his completion rate been below 60 percent. Granted, the only truly elite defense he's faced during that time was LSU's, but any Dawg fan licking his chops at the prospect of another 4-12-4-35 line like the one Cox threw last year against Georgia is going to come out of this game bitterly disappointed.
Slowly making the transition from goat back into badass, but can he lift a keg over his head?
As for the other half of Auburn's game, the Tigers are fielding a unit ranked eighth in the nation in total defense, so we're not gonna be hanging 37 points on them again, either. It's particularly scary in light of some of the very talented runners they've completely shut down this year: Ole Miss's BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 62 yards on 13 carries; Florida's Tim Tebow, 75 yards on 19 carries; Darren McFadden, only 43 yards on 17 carries. You don't even have to have seen McFadden's brutal vivisection of South Carolina last week to know what a stunner that last stat is. That spells trouble for Knowshon Moreno, though it's fair to say he's healthier than McFadden was when the Razorbacks played Auburn, and will likely get more carries than any of the guys I just named (since taking over the starting job from an injured Thomas Brown, Knowshon has received an average of 29 carries over three games).
A lot of this game is probably going to fall on Matt Stafford's shoulders, and while Auburn has done a fair job of picking off passes -- 12 INTs in 10 games -- they're having trouble getting to the quarterback, surprising given the quality of the Tigers' defensive line. Auburn is tied for 89th in the country with only 16 sacks on the season (for comparison's sake, Georgia has totaled 21 sacks in nine games); in tackles for loss, they're 80th, with 5.7 per game (Georgia is 46th with about six and a half). As Senator Blutarsky was kind enough to point out earlier this week, our supposedly ragtag offensive line has done a remarkably good job of keeping Matt Stafford's jersey clean this season, and has also been a big part of why our offense has gone from being a field-goal machine over the last few years to being the SEC's most efficient in the red zone. Couple that with the fact that the Dawgs are tied for first in the country in fewest turnovers lost -- only nine all season, even when you factor in our two head-slapping fumbles against Troy last week -- and it tells you that when this offense has the ball, more often than not they do good things with it.
You tell Will Muschamp that Stafford is gonna eat his family!
So I think our defense should be able to keep Auburn from going wild on us, and as rugged as AU's defense is, I think Stafford, Knowshon and the rest will have more than a puncher's chance against them. In fact, both teams seem incredibly evenly matched overall -- but now's the part where we bring the extracurriculars in, and it's a bit of a buzzkill.
First off: Yes, the home team traditionally sucks in this rivalry. It's gotten a bit better of late -- the home team did win in 2003 and '04 -- but when Mark Richt and Tommy Tuberville have squared off, the home team has lost four out of six matchups. Go back to 1996, the start of the Jim Donnan era, and it's eight out of eleven. Go back to 1989, the first year A.D. (After Dooley), and the home team's record is 5-12-1. Not only that, but Sen. Blutarsky also sadly informs us that the higher-ranked team is only 4-7 in the last 11 games -- an ominous factoid given that Georgia is ranked #10 in both polls (and the BCS standings) headed into this weekend, while Auburn is 18th in the sportswriters' poll, 17th in the coaches'.
I'm less concerned with Chip Towers's contention that "whichever team has the most to lose in any given year usually does" -- yes, 2006 was certainly a soul-crusher for Auburn, just as 1997 was for the finally-victorious-over-Florida Dawgs, but there have been just as many instances where a team managed to keep its championship dreams alive (Georgia beating Auburn and winning the SEC East in '02 and '03, Auburn flicking off Georgia in '04 like so much sweater lint and staying on track for a 13-0 season). However, neither am I buying into this idea that anyone on the Auburn side is going to be distracted by the Tuberville-to-TAMU rumors. Remember when Tubbs nearly got bounced right out the door in 2003 thanks to Bobby Lowder's secret jet trip up to Louisville? Tuberville's team was so demoralized by the resulting controversy that they went on to win their next 15 games straight.
Not to mention the all-important affirmation of the Eufaula Tribune and its coveted People's National Champion trophy. (By the way, did you know that if you do a Google image search for "eufaula tribune" auburn champion, two of the results on the first page are graphic depictions of male genitalia? Totally not making that up.)
I just don't know. The statistics seem to break fairly evenly, or even tilt a little bit in Georgia's favor, but if there was ever a rivalry where statistics could be thrown right out the window, it's this one. For some reason I keep having those visions of 2005 creep into my head, and it's not the fact that the venue is the same, nor is it any residual fear of buying a counterfeit ticket (I've already got a ticket hookup for this weekend, so if it turns out to be fake I can just beat DAve's ass). No, it isn't any of that. Try this scenario on for size:
Athens, Georgia, November 10, about quarter to four in the afternoon. As the skies dim and the temperature ducks down to the 50-degree mark, the black-clad crowd watches the Dawgs drive into Auburn territory but get halted at the 39 as a pass on third-and-5 falls incomplete. Bulldog Nation can only sit in silent frustration as Brian Mimbs's punt dribbles into the end zone, but their spirits are yanked right into the stratosphere by this PA announcement during the time-out for change of possession:
"Final score from Knoxville: Arkansas 31, Tennessee 27."
Followed by: "Darren McFadden, 32 rushes for a jillion yards."
Cue cheers of unbridled, schadenfreude-fueled joy as Bulldog Nation sees the SEC East presented as if on a velvet pillow right before their very eyes, ripe for the taking. An energized Bulldog defense allows Auburn onto its side of the field but stops them on a fourth-and-2 at the 36. Georgia kicks a field goal on its next possession, then it's back and forth, back and forth until the Dawgs strut into the locker room at halftime with a 13-10 lead -- the first time all season that the Tigers have been behind at the break.
They aren't going away, though. The back and forth, back and forth continues for the entirety of the second half, but a young Georgia team that can only think of one thing -- that SEC East title, still sitting right there on the pillow -- and starts playing tighter. One pass is dropped, then another. A team that was already on edge gets even more distracted -- what do we have to do to put this one away? -- and the crowd moans as what should have been a first down inside the red zone turns into a pooch punt. Georgia's still ahead, but the lead is even smaller now, and it seems to get smaller still as Brandon Cox and the Tigers, with no division title to lose, grind out yards -- and clock -- with less than two minutes left in the game. We finally stand up Mario Fannin on a third-and-short at the 32, and Bulldog Nation raises its eyes to the skies, thinking that maybe there's one last chance for their prayers to be answered . . .
Only it turns out Wes Byrum has been praying harder. Auburn 23, Georgia 22, ballgame.
The freshman has killed before; he will kill again.
Now, how much do I have to hate myself to have written all that down? Lots, probably. But now that I've envisioned it, I can't get it out of my head. And somehow, I think a Tennessee-loses, Georgia-wins scenario for this weekend would just be too . . . easy. (Senator Blutarsky has a similar head/heart disagreement here, only unlike me, it's his heart that indefatigably holds out hope for a Georgia win, while his head is the Debbie Downer of the pair.)
Throw down your own scenarios, game plans, divinely inspired visions in the comments thread -- and by all means, come up with something better than mine -- but that's what I see happening.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia wins, period. That makes this the third time (after Alabama and Florida) that a simple no-strings-attached win would be satisfying enough for me to embarrass myself over it; a chance at staying alive in the SEC race is at stake here, not to mention I'm surrounded by Auburn folks here in the Salty 'Ham, so whether it's by 1 point or 35, a win would be enough to make me a happy man indeed.