ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt's team managed to overcome a midseason lull, following a spate of crippling injuries, to remain in contention for the SEC East title.
No. 25 Georgia's coach maintains that such a motivational carrot has done wonders for his team, which could still focus on achieving a preseason goal instead of simply trying to reach the best possible mid-level bowl game. But Saturday's visit to No. 7 Auburn (9-1, 5-1 SEC) could end that line of thinking for the Bulldogs (6-3, 4-2).
“We'll know more after the next two weeks where we sit, as far as at least record,” Richt said. “If we're able to win, it'll take another week after that possibly to decide our situation, so we're still working towards trying to win the Eastern Division right now.”
Games involving No. 9 Missouri (9-1, 5-1) and No. 10 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) will also impact the Bulldogs' fate, but the No. 1 thing they can do to help themselves is to beat Auburn and Kentucky in their final two conference games. That's a major challenge in itself.
Auburn brings the SEC's top rushing offense (320 ypg) -- No. 3 nationally -- into Saturday's game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers have rushed for at least 200 yards in every game but one (against Mississippi State, when they passed for 339) and will present a major challenge to a Georgia defense that has made progress recently after an horrendous start to the season.
The Bulldogs rank fourth in the SEC and 20th nationally against the run (126 ypg), and believe they will be able to slow down quarterback Nick Marshall (734 rushing yards, seven TDs), running back Tre Mason (1,038-16) and the rest of the Tigers' talented runners.
“Our front seven, we feel real good about this matchup,” said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, who leads the SEC with 92 tackles. “They like to run the ball, we like to stop the run, we like to hit, so it's going to be a good matchup.”
Meanwhile, Georgia appears to be the closest to full strength that it has been in weeks. Tailback Todd Gurley has accounted for 274 yards of offense and three touchdowns in two games since returning from an ankle injury, although he is not yet completely healthy. Receiver Michael Bennett and tight end Arthur Lynch are also back, and wideout Chris Conley might also return to the lineup on Saturday.
That group has put up big numbers against the Tigers over the last two seasons -- a 45-7 win in 2011 and 38-0 victory last fall -- so if Georgia's offense is intact on Saturday, the Bulldogs might just be able to keep their division hopes alive for another week.
“Hopefully it continues this Saturday, for sure,” said quarterback Aaron Murray, who has amassed 705 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions in three starts against Auburn. “We've got to go out there and execute on offense, we've got to keep control of the ball and we've got to keep their offense off the field and do our part.”