Older Americans remember the iconic radio voice, Paul Harvey, one of this nation's most gifted broadcasters. Harvey was a master storyteller who closed his sweeping, memorable accounts with the signature phrase, "the REST of the story."
In the 26th SEC Championship Game -- the first in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta -- there is a side of the story everyone will talk about.
Don't forget the REST of the story.
The main drama entering Saturday's clash between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers is the battle between UGA's defense and Auburn's offense, which looked very comfortable against Alabama's vaunted defense. Auburn scored 26 points and would have had more if not for a fumbled snap inside the Alabama 10. The Tigers were also playing to run the clock for much of the fourth quarter, no longer using a full playbook or an aggressive approach.
Two weeks earlier against Georgia, Auburn hung 40 on the scoreboard, finally locked into a state of high-level precision and polish which remained largely intact in the Iron Bowl. As in 2013, a Gus Malzahn-coached offense clicked into place late in the season.
The circle Auburn will try to complete on Saturday is to win the SEC title. In 2013, it did so with a 59-point performance that represented the height of the Malzahn era at Auburn. Given the stakes and the pressure and the spotlight, plus the fact that this was not at Jordan-Hare Stadium, it was reasonable to claim that no Malzahn offense has played better in a big game than on that evening in Atlanta.
However, that was Missouri, a team with a solid but hardly imposing defense. The Tigers relied on their offense that season, scoring at least 31 points in all but one game entering Nov. 23 of that year. Missouri scored 42 against Auburn... and lost by 17. It was the kind of game more readily associated today with the Big 12, but in 2013, SEC offenses carried the freight in the conference. Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron, Connor Shaw, Johnny Manziel, Maty Mauk -- they were all in the conference that season. Auburn's Nick Marshall never came across as a player worthy of NFL consideration, but he became a much-more-than-adequate facilitator of the Auburn offense. Against Missouri's defense, Auburn's skill players -- despite the taxing, grueling Iron Bowl just a week earlier -- were able to make the turnaround to the next week and have plenty in the tank.
This upcoming Saturday, it's true that Auburn faces a defense it has already shredded this season, but that was at home, on a day when Georgia played its worst game of 2017. Georgia has accumulated a body of work which suggests that a second straight Auburn explosion against the Dawgs is unlikely. Roquan Smith, an outstanding anchor of the UGA defense, is too good, and has too many talented teammates, to not offer more resistance to the Auburn machine. Moreover, with Kerryon Johnson dinged up after the Iron Bowl and Kamryn Pettway on the shelf, plus other backups nicked in that bruiser against Bama, Auburn's running game has been significantly compromised -- maybe not to the point of nonexistence, but quite possibly to the extent that the Tigers won't be able to lean on and wear down the Dawgs in the second half.
Auburn led Georgia 16-7 at halftime and then blew the Dawgs out of the water with two prompt third-quarter touchdowns for a 30-7 stranglehold. Auburn might not be able to pull away from Georgia if its running backs are depleted enough. Moreover, Auburn might not even be able to take a first-half advantage if it can't establish the run-pass balance it wants. One can debate how limited Auburn's offense will be or how prepared Georgia's defense will be, but it seems fair to say that 2017 Georgia has a more physical profile, especially on defense, relative to 2013 Missouri. The turnaround from the Iron Bowl will challenge the stamina and resourcefulness of Auburn's offense in ways the 2013 SEC title game never did. This will be the tension point most people will focus on before kickoff on Saturday.
Now, let's pivot from that point and deal with the REST of the story.
While it seems fairly likely that Auburn's offense will score fewer points than it did against Georgia on Nov. 11, a more intriguing question is whether Georgia can score more than the 17 points it posted against Auburn on that same day. Keep in mind that seven of those 17 points were scored in a garbage-time context... and that seven points were scored on the opening drive. Georgia was basically smothered after its first possession. Can the Dawgs score in the high 20s or low 30s? They have a good chance to win if they do.
Here is one problem for Georgia: Auburn's defense is not beaten up, at least not the way the AU offense (more precisely, the running back corps) is. The Tigers might not be farm-fresh after slugging it out with Alabama, but they are not compromised in terms of their plan or what they want to achieve. That's only a possibility with the AU offense and its attempt to create run-pass balance.
Here is the other main problem for Georgia: Auburn just spent a lot of last Saturday chasing Jalen Hurts. Though Hurts is not an especially polished passer, his run threat forced Auburn to consider the real possibility of three different plays on most snaps: a dropback pass, a handoff, or a QB keeper. Georgia and pocket passer Jake Fromm will not offer a QB run threat, narrowing Auburn's expectations before each snap. Georgia is a lot more likely to be confined to down-and-distance situations. A Hurts run could occur in unpredictable situations. Georgia is likely to be more tethered to situational needs. Auburn's defense should relish the matchup. Georgia will count on adjustments and improvements afforded to the Bulldogs in a rematch which can get Auburn off balance -- rematches often go the other way, as 2011 Alabama and 2011 LSU could tell you -- but while UGA might own the revenge factor, Auburn is not likely to be surprised by what Georgia does. In a rematch, that's a crucial advantage for the team which won the initial meeting.
Rematches often tilt to the loser of the first matchup because it sees so many things on film that it can correct, while the winner of the first matchup rests on its ability to "do what we did the first time." The incentive and motivation for change come only from the losing team. The winner doesn't easily muster the same degree of urgency as an extension of film study and tactics.
Auburn's defense, however, is able to win so many one-on-one matchups -- especially its defensive front against Georgia's offensive line -- that the Tigers might not have to make a substantial pivot in order to handle what Georgia has to offer. The Dawgs, like Auburn, would prefer to establish the run first. They would also like run-pass balance in which they can get the opponent's defense on a pendulum. However, Auburn -- with Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey -- has so many more creative ways to move pieces on the chessboard, get defenders out of position, and arrive at a place of balance and the unpredictability which accompanies it in football. Georgia doesn't have as diverse a system -- partly because it hasn't needed one, partly because Fromm is a freshman who was not the opening day starter, and partly because Kirby Smart is happy to win games the way Nick Saban does: with brute strength.
If Georgia's offense does well against Auburn, it is likely to win not with cleverness, but because the UGA offensive line gets mad and gets even. Georgia is likely to win not due to what it does on defense, but because of a snot-kicking offensive front which establishes the run, gains leverage in the trenches, enables the Bulldogs to control the ball, and sets up deep passes for big gains. The focus will be on Auburn's running backs and offensive capabilities against the Georgia front seven, but the REST of the story concerns the need for Georgia's offense to win more individual battles, fueled by the fury which comes from being humiliated by 23 points three weeks earlier in a game which wasn't as close as the final score indicated.
Jarrett Stidham, with Alabama's scalp fresh in his hands, will receive most of the publicity heading into Saturday... but Fromm carries the REST of the story.
Gus Malzahn and Chip Lindsey are the more creative innovators on Saturday, but Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney holds the REST of the story.
Auburn's injured offense might decline relative to Nov. 11 in Jordan-Hare, but Auburn's not-as-compromised defense will author the REST of the story.
Now you know... how the rest of the story is likely to unfold in the first-ever SEC Championship Game meeting between Georgia and Auburn.
All that's left is for the story to be written.
GEORGIA-AUBURN STAT COMPARISON
|AUB MASSEY COMP&|
& The Massey Composite Ratings are compiled from 98 different college football ratings and rankings.
GEORGIA INJURIES AND SUSPENSIONS
|11/26/17||FB||Christian Payne||Undisclosed||is "?" Saturday vs. Auburn|
|11/26/17||DT||DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle||Back||is "?" Saturday vs. Auburn|
|11/04/17||LB||Rashad Roundtree||Concussion||is out indefinitely|
AUBURN INJURIES AND SUSPENSIONS
|11/26/17||LB||Chandler Wooten||Undisclosed||is "?" Saturday vs. Georgia|
|11/26/17||RB||JaTarvious Whitlow||Ankle||is "?" Saturday vs. Georgia|
|11/26/17||RB||Kerryon Johnson||Shoulder||is probable Saturday vs. Georgia|
|10/31/17||RB||Kamryn Pettway||Shoulder||is out indefinitely|
|10/17/17||WR||Kyle Davis||Disciplinary||out for season|
|09/20/17||DE||Byron Cowart||Transferred||out for season|
|09/18/17||QB||Sean White||Dismissed||out for season|