Georgia-Auburn at night: Cover your ears!

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Fans are excited about the return of Todd Gurley to the UGA lineup. (Philip Williams / UGA)
Mark Richt wants the Georgia crowd to show up early, including for the Dawg Walk. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Mark Richt wants the Georgia crowd to show up early, including for the Dawg Walk. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC)

Last week, a longtime UGA football season ticket holder wrote to me lamenting that the game atmosphere in Sanford Stadium wasn’t as intimidating as at other SEC stadiums he’s visited.

I agreed that, at times, Sanford crowds aren’t quite as involved in a game as I’d like, but I’d put the atmosphere at last season’s South Carolina and LSU games and this year’s Clemson game up against what you’ll experience at any other stadium.

The memories of the sustained crowd roar at the LSU game, in particular, still ring in my ears as the loudest I’ve ever experienced in Athens, topping even the 1976 win over Bama and the 2007 Blackout game.

As I wrote at the time, the crowd at the Georgia-Clemson game earlier this season came close to matching that LSU game, especially on key third-down plays, as the Tigers had to burn a couple of timeouts because of crowd noise and their offensive line had trouble with the signals.

Fans are excited about the return of Todd Gurley to the UGA lineup. (Philip Williams / UGA)

Fans are excited about the return of Todd Gurley to the UGA lineup. (Philip Williams / UGA)

As loud as those games were, though, Saturday’s Georgia-Auburn clash has the makings of setting a new record for the decibel level Between the Hedges, what with it being the first home game in 42 days, a night game, the Dogs having Todd Gurley back in the lineup, former Bulldog Nick Marshall returning to the stadium where he used to play, and a possible SEC East title on the line for UGA.

While Mark Richt declined (wisely, I think) to call for a Blackout this week, preferring to focus the attention of his team on the task at hand, he has made it clear the Georgia fans are expected to play a major role against Auburn. The head coach has urged fans to turn out for the Dawg Walk (set for about 5:40 p.m., with kickoff at 7:21 p.m.) and also said, “I need the students there during pregame warm-ups” to fire up his troops. (The stadium gates will open to the public at 5:45 p.m.)

Broker reports Georgia-Auburn is the top-priced ticket on this week’s secondary market, with a starting price of $130 and an average price of $225, easily topping Mississippi State-Alabama. And that’s despite the fact that ticket prices for the game have actually been dropping since Auburn’s loss last week.

Having had a full day to get ready for the game, the crowd should be pretty wired by game time, and when the latest terrific hype video done by UGA’s Frank Martin is shown on the big screen at Sanford, the place should be “worse than bonkers,” as Larry Munson would say.

As for what I see happening in the game itself, as I wrote earlier this week, even if Jeremy Pruitt’s defense plays its best game of the season against Auburn, probably the most they can hope for is slowing down Marshall and the Tigers offense a bit and containing the Tigers’ big-play potential. The Dogs’ defense needs to play disciplined, assignment football and not get rattled, because Marshall and company, the SEC’s best rushing attack and most efficient passing attack, will get their yards and points.

Jeremy Pruitt faces a big challenge in figuring how how to defend Auburn's explosive offense. (John Kelley / UGA)

Jeremy Pruitt faces a big challenge in figuring how how to defend Auburn’s explosive offense. (John Kelley / UGA)

Georgia’s defense needs to keep containment on the outside (which they failed to do against Florida), try not to let Marshall run free, eliminate the explosive plays in the passing game, and create turnovers.

The job will be somewhat easier for Pruitt’s defenders, however, if Mike Bobo comes out with an aggressive game plan that has Hutson Mason challenging Auburn’s extremely vulnerable pass defense in addition to feeding the ball to Gurley and Nick Chubb. Balance is important for the Dogs, as Auburn is much better at defending the run than the pass.

Bobo needs to take chances, going for it on fourth down early, if need be. And Mason needs to play with the “grip-and-rip” mentality he showed against Kentucky, trusting his receivers to make a play even if they’re not open in tight coverage. He can’t hold on to the ball waiting to throw to guys in space like he did early in the season.

And while Gurley being back is huge and the one-two punch of him and Chubb looks awesome (Georgia probably will enter the fourth quarter still with fresh legs), the rest of the offense needs to play with the same sense of urgency they showed when No. 3 was first missing from the lineup at Missouri.

Georgia needs to keep from losing containment on Auburn's Nick Marshall. (Associated Press)

Georgia needs to keep from losing containment on Auburn’s Nick Marshall. (Associated Press)

Georgia coming out blasting is important because, if the Dogs make Auburn play from behind, it forces Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up option-read offense to be more pass-oriented than it wants, especially considering that their leading receiver, Duke Williams, is unlikely to play. Auburn has some other good receivers, but that takes away one of Marshall’s major weapons.

So, basically, I don’t expect the Dogs to stop Auburn’s explosive offense. And I don’t really expect the Tigers to stop Gurley and company. Auburn ranks ninth in the SEC in total defense, allowing 386 yards per game, and they’re next to last in the conference against the pass (256.9).

This is one of those games where it’s crucial not to lose serve. The Dogs need to score every time they get the ball, like they did against Kentucky, or as close to that as possible.

This is likely to be a game where field position and turnovers will be key. Returns could be a factor, with Auburn’s Quan Bray and Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie both home-run threats. I’d feel better if the Dogs’ punting wasn’t the worst in the conference, but at least Auburn’s isn’t much better, and they’ve been a bit prone to turnovers of late, while Georgia has been opportunistic in that regard all season.

Auburn likely will be the biggest challenge the Dogs have faced all season. But the odds of success improve dramatically if the Sanford crowd shows up loud and proud as that “12th man.”

Go Dogs!

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

Junkyard Blawg mugBill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.

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