ATLANTA – It’s hard to keep a big Dawg down.
Auburn found out the hard way.
In a complete role reversal of the first game between the two, Georgia took apart Auburn 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, likely sending the Bulldogs into the College Football Playoffs and sending Auburn home disheartened.
On Nov. 11, Auburn manhandled Georgia, ranked No. 1 at the time, 40-17 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the regular-season battle of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
This time, it was No. 2-ranked Auburn (10-3) being pushed around by the No. 6 Bulldogs (12-1) at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where many more fans dressed in Georgia red and black filled the stands in their home state than those wearing the orange and blue of Auburn.
Georgia’s Kirby Smart, making his first appearance in the SEC title game as his alma mater’s head coach, has been here before while serving as Alabama’s defensive coordinator and understands well the significance of winning the title.
“It’s great to bring it back to Georgia, and the Bulldog Nation is certainly starved,” Smart said. “I’ve always said it’s one of the greatest events in all of college sports. It’s a special opportunity to bring a young team into this environment.”
For Auburn, it was the first setback since reeling off five straight wins following a loss at LSU.
The Tigers’ top threat at running back, Kerryon Johnson, played in the game despite being hampered by an upper body injury, but wasn’t nearly as effective as normal. Johnson was held to 44 yards on 13 carries. In the first meeting, Johnson ran for 167 yards on 32 carries.
“He wasn’t the same guy he was the last game, so that probably helped some as well,” Smart said of his team's win. “We felt getting after the quarterback (Jarrett Stidham) was the way to beat them, and we did that much better this game than we did the last game.”
While Auburn struggled offensively, the Bulldogs rushed for 238 yards on Saturday after being held to just 46 yards in the previous meeting between the two. Georgia compiled 421 yards overall in the championship game in contrast to Auburn compiling 259 yards (114 rushing, 145 passing).
“They just physically whipped us up front,” said Auburn senior safety Tray Matthews, who once played at Georgia before transferring. “If your team rushes for 200 yards, you’re going to win the game. So that’s what happened.”
Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm also outshined Auburn’s Stidham this time. Fromm was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and two touchdowns, while Stidham was 16-of-32 for 145 yards and a touchdown. In the first game, Fromm was limited to 13-of-28 completions for 184 yards and one touchdown, while Stidham completed 16-of-23 for 214 yards and three TDs.
“I don’t think enough can be said about the response he had,” Smart said of Fromm. “He makes a lot of decisions to put these guys in the right play. He really runs the offense efficiently.”
The Tigers looked impressive in scoring a touchdown on the first drive of the game – reminiscent of what Georgia did at Auburn before losing 40-17 on Nov. 11 – but little went Auburn’s way the rest of the game.
Georgia battled back to lead 10-7 by halftime, 13-7 after three quarters and then put it away with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Stidham talked about Georgia’s defense being disruptive.
“They did a great job of bringing a lot of different looks, switching up the coverages, blitzes, fronts – I mean everything,” Stidham said. “They did a great job tonight of switching it up and causing a little bit of havoc.
“It is what it is. We just didn’t execute when we should have.”