Georgia-Auburn has always been one of the friendlier SEC rivalries on the Dawgs' annual slate, but you wouldn't have gotten that impression toward the end of last year's game on the Plains. A blatant illegal hit by Nick Fairley, a retaliatory gesture by the Georgia offensive line, a near-fistfight in the closing minutes . . . and, of course, it didn't help that Auburn won by 18 and roared to a national title behind a couple of the more controversial players of the 2010 season. Georgia won't be able to exact their revenge against Fairley or Cam Newton this year, as both players parlayed superb junior seasons into first-round selections in the NFL draft. Unfortunately for Auburn, that's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of missing players this year -- between early departures, graduations and offseason dismissals, the Tigers return less starting experience than any other team in the country, and it's not even close. A perfect time, then, for Georgia to get their revenge and earn a critical late-season win.
BETTER KNOW THE TIGERS
Coach: Gene Chizik, 22-5 in two seasons at Auburn; 27-24 overall
Last season: 14-0, 8-0 SEC East (1st); beat South Carolina 56-17 in the SEC Championship Game; beat Oregon 22-19 in the BCS National Championship Game; ranked 1st in the final AP poll
Returning starters for 2011: 6 (three offense, three defense, zero special teams)
Key returners: RB Michael Dyer, RB Onterio McCalebb, DE Nosa Eguae, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen
Key losses: QB Cam Newton, DT Nick Fairley, OT Lee Ziemba, C Ryan Pugh
Best-case scenario: The Dawgs retain vivid memories of the second-half punishment they received from the Tigers last year and rain fire on Auburn's decimated defense, while a front seven that's much bigger and tougher than last year's manhandles the Tigers' inexperienced offensive line and holds Dyer and McCalebb in check. The personnel losses on the Auburn side are really quite astounding -- Eguae, a sophomore, is now the grizzled veteran of the front seven, while the offensive line loses more than 130 career starts with the departures of Ziemba, Pugh and guard Mike Berry and may only have 15 total among their starting five this season. In a season when the SEC East is still very much up in the air and the Dawgs might still be in the running for the division crown in November, this sets up as a great opportunity for a big win.
Worst-case scenario: The more experienced Georgia D still can't keep Gus Malzahn from hanging another fat point total around their necks and the Dawgs go down in an upset. Sure, that might seem far-fetched at a time when Auburn has just lost a once-in-a-generation superstar, but consider that in Malzahn's first year on the Plains, he resurrected an Auburn offense that had gone in the tank under Tommy Tuberville and guided them to a second-place finish in the SEC in total yardage -- with Chris Todd as his quarterback. Granted, he had a much more experienced offensive line to deal with, but the way Auburn has recruited the last couple seasons, he isn't going to lack for raw talent. If the Dawgs can't corral Dyer and McCalebb any more soundly than they did some of the better tailbacks on their schedule last year, this will be a dogfight even with the Tigers limping in undermanned.