Run defense key to UGA upset bid

ATHENS, Ga. -- Las Vegas seems to believe Georgia has a better chance against Auburn than many members of the Bulldogs' fan base.

When the opening line was released for Saturday's next installment of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, placing Auburn as a three-point favorite -- you can also find the Tigers favored by 3.5, depending on where you look -- the overwhelming sentiment in replies from Georgia fans was, "Is that all?"

That question is understandable given that Auburn seems to have the hammer down after Saturday's impressive 55-23 win at Tennessee, while Georgia has been stuck in neutral for a month since a number of its most important offensive players dropped out of the lineup with injuries.

The Bulldogs re-entered the Associated Press Top 25 on Sunday (at No. 25) for the first time since dropping from the rankings after an Oct. 19 loss to Vanderbilt. Yet it's perfectly reasonable to wonder how the Bulldogs possibly can hang with Auburn at Jordan-Hare, even though Georgia has dominated the series thoroughly in recent years.

Not only did the Bulldogs' blowout wins in 2011 (45-7) and 2012 (38-0) pull the all-time series to even at 54-54-8, they gave Georgia wins in six of its last seven meetings with Auburn and threatened the UGA program record for biggest margin of victory over the Tigers (41-0 in 1946).

When the teams kick off on Saturday, Georgia will be riding a string of 76 unanswered points against Auburn that dates back to the first quarter of the 2011 game in Athens. That's thanks in large part to Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray's mastery of the Tigers (he has completed 67.1 percent of his passes in three starts against Auburn, passing for 705 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions) and a defense that has surrendered 238 or fewer yards in each of the last two meetings since Auburn's emotional 49-31 win in 2010 created bad blood on both sides.

Auburn ran 25 times for just 51 yards against Georgia in 2011, Gus Malzahn's final season as the Tigers' offensive coordinator before spending a year at Arkansas State and returning as head coach this season. But it's completely unreasonable to expect such a defensive performance on Saturday against an Auburn rushing attack that now leads the SEC with an average of 320 yards per game.

Former Georgia player Nick Marshall has been exceptional in the Tigers' key wins against Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Tennessee, running for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns against each -- including 214 and two scores in Saturday's win against Tennessee. And running back Tre Mason has scored a touchdown in seven straight games, plus he has rushed for at least 100 yards in four of the last five.

All of that said, run defense is the one area that has been fairly consistent throughout this rebuilding season for Georgia's young defense. The Bulldogs have struggled at times against the pass, but they are fourth in the SEC against the run (126 ypg), setting up perhaps the biggest key to Saturday's game.

If Todd Grantham's defense can slow down Auburn's running game and force Marshall to pass, Georgia's chances of victory increase exponentially. Marshall has attempted 10 or more passes just six times this season and has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in only two of those games.

He's a phenomenal athlete, and he and Mason are both superb runners, but as a pure pocket passer, Marshall scares exactly nobody. Grantham will have the difficult responsibility of finding a way to hem him in and make him throw on Saturday -- something multiple defensive coordinators have attempted, but very few have pulled off effectively.

Auburn's defense hardly resembles the 1985 Chicago Bears -- the Tigers are 10th in the SEC in total defense (394.4 ypg) -- so Georgia will score some points if Bulldogs tailback Todd Gurley is anywhere near full strength after an ankle injury that has plagued him for much of the season.

Grantham's defense probably must deliver its finest effort of the season to keep Saturday's game within reach for Gurley and company, however. If they can't keep Marshall and the Tigers from running wild, that three-point spread that so confused Georgia's fans will probably have seemed generous by the time Saturday's game ends.