They meet again, and so soon.
Auburn and Georgia are colliding for the first time in the 26-year history of the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will occur just 21 days after the Tigers walloped the Bulldogs 40-17 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. This isn't the first rematch in SEC football history, but it's the first time two league teams will vie twice in a four-game span.
"I don't see it as a challenge or an advantage for either team," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said late Sunday afternoon. "We obviously know each other pretty well, because we play each other every year anyway, with them being our crossover rival. Two times in one year is unique, but I just think that both teams know each other."
Auburn opened Sunday afternoon as a 2.5-point favorite in the first SEC title game that pairs current cross-divisional rivals used by the league. LSU and Florida have combined for 17 league title-game appearances, while Alabama and Tennessee have combined for 16, but neither of those two rivalries have experienced a second staging for the SEC crown.facebook
Smart and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn are not foreign to league rematches.
Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2010, when the Tigers won the national title with a 14-0 record that included a home win over South Carolina in late September and another victory over the Gamecocks in early December in Atlanta.
"The unique thing about this is that it's been very recent," Malzahn said. "That makes it a little more unique and challenging. You try to analyze everything and not just the last game you played. You've got to analyze the whole year and the two games we've played in between."
Auburn's two games since defeating Georgia consist of a 42-14 dumping of Louisiana-Monroe and a 26-14 defeat of No. 1 Alabama. The Tigers moved up to No. 4 in both major polls Sunday, with Alabama falling to No. 5 and the Bulldogs inching up to No. 6.
Georgia has waxed Kentucky, 42-13, and Georgia Tech, 38-7, since losing at Auburn.
In 2011, Smart was the defensive coordinator for Alabama as it lost in overtime at home to LSU in early November but beat the Tigers 21-0 in New Orleans at the BCS championship game in early January.
"The biggest difference is how far apart the games are," Smart said. "We had that entire prep time back then, and this time it's a game week, so it's really four or five days of prep, and then you've got to go play. That was a month of preparing, or more than a month.
"You can't reinvent the wheel in a week."
Smart said the video preparation before the trip to Auburn earlier this month had a seven- or eight-game breakdown of the Tigers, and that it will be the same this week.
One big difference between the first and second meeting could be the availability of Tigers junior running back Kerryon Johnson, who rushed 32 times for 167 yards the first time around against the Bulldogs. Johnson threw an early 3-yard touchdown pass Saturday and had rushed for 104 yards when he fell to the turf with 6:21 remaining.
Malzahn would only describe Johnson's setback as a "shoulder issue" Saturday night and did not have much to offer Sunday as far as his availability.
"We'll check on him daily and see what his status is," he said. "It's really hard to say."
Malzahn did say that junior running back Kamryn Pettway, who fractured his shoulder blade in the 52-20 win at Arkansas on Oct. 21, would not be available Saturday. Should Johnson be unable to go, Auburn's top three tailbacks would be sophomore Kam Martin, redshirt freshman Malik Miller and freshman Devan Barrett.
Martin has rushed 64 times this season for 409 yards and 6.4 yards per carry, while Miller (32-129, 4.0) and Barrett (13-82, 6.3) have not been used as much.
Even if Johnson is healthy enough to play, the Tigers will be facing a motivated team in a neutral-site venue that could actually favor Georgia, given that the Bulldogs clinched the SEC East on Nov. 4. Auburn won the West on Saturday.
"They're going to have a crowd, there is no doubt as far as that goes," Malzahn said. "With this being for the SEC championship, it's as big as it gets whether there is revenge or not and all that. We're expecting their best, and you're talking about one of the more talented teams in all of college football."
Malzahn has been mentioned as a top target for the Arkansas opening that became available Friday when Bret Bielema was fired after five seasons, and he was asked Sunday if he was committed to returning to the Tigers for the 2018 season.
"Yeah, I'm honored to be the head coach here at Auburn," Malzahn said. "We're playing for the SEC championship, and I'm excited to be the head coach here."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.