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A spirit that is not afraid

Players to watch, keys to victory versus Georgia

Wide receiver Jaye Fair walks to the locker room in match of Auburn and LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 1, 2022
Wide receiver Jaye Fair walks to the locker room in match of Auburn and LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 1, 2022

When a Bo Nix pass bounced off running back Shaun Shivers in the first quarter versus No. 2 Georgia last year, it fell into the hands of Nakobe Dean, setting up the Bulldogs to tie the game briefly before running away with a 34-10 win in a sloppy performance full of dropped passes and missed conversions for Auburn.

But now Nix is at Oregon and Shivers at Indiana, and Auburn is facing a No. 2 undefeated team once again. However, last season the Tigers were ranked No. 18 and coming off a thrilling win at LSU. This time, the circumstances feel much different.

Auburn is 3-2, and it is trying to rebound from a second-half collapse versus LSU at home last week. One of its wins was a single-digit defeat of Mountain West foe San José State; more recently, Auburn lucked out in a 17-14 overtime win over Missouri.

The Tigers will embark to Athens to end their five-game home stretch to start the season. For a lot of the freshmen and transfers, including Robby Ashford, this is their first road action in college -- and it's at the former champions' home.

“This, for us, is our first road trip, so that'll be an opportunity for us to travel and get these guys on the road," said head coach Bryan Harsin.

A win is a win, but so far this season, Auburn is yet to play a complete, four-quarter game. It has not scored a second-half point since Jarquez Hunter hurdled into the end zone for a touchdown in a blowout loss to Penn State.  Even in its biggest margin of victory this year, a 42-16 win over Mercer to begin the season, Mercer outscored Auburn 9-0 in the fourth quarter.

"To me, it really comes down to trying to eliminate those negative plays, and then just being more consistent," Harsin said. "That’s play calls. That’s execution. That’s all those things, and not just one in particular."

Despite facing questions about his job security, Harsin is focused on taking care of business now. With former national champion No. 2 Georgia coming to The Plains for "the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry" that dates back to 1892, Harsin has a prime opportunity to thicken the ice and cool off his hot seat with the Auburn football program on Saturday.

UGA leads the head-to-head series with Auburn 62-56-8, and the Bulldogs are now a marquee program of College Football.

With Auburn losing the last five matchups versus UGA and having not left Athens with a win since 2005, the expectations are not high for the Tigers. This is especially true after Georgia came into Jordan-Hare Stadium and had its way with Auburn last year en route to an SEC Championship appearance and National Championship win over Alabama.

But Georgia's Dean is gone from UGA as well, along with five Bulldogs who were taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Like any premier college football program though, they have reloaded. 

While UGA has a lot of new faces, it has quite a few familiar ones, including last year's Auburn offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Bobo was fired after one season at Auburn under Harsin, and he was hired by UGA head coach Kirby Smart as an offensive analyst.

Although UGA is coming off a 26-22 win over Missouri that was much closer than expected, the Bulldogs have also had eye-popping wins over now No. 12 Oregon (49-3) and SEC East rival South Carolina (48-7).

Yes, the previously top-ranked team was expected to run Missouri out of its stadium in Columbia, but Auburn struggled with the 2-3 team too. In fact, UGA did what Auburn couldn't and hasn't done recently -- score a second-half point and finish strong. The Bulldogs went into halftime down 16-6 but kept their composure, outscoring Missouri 20-6 in the second half to complete the comeback.

Auburn will try to change its weak endings to halves and games this week, but it will in no way come easily against a disciplined, talented and well-tested Bulldog squad, who seemingly has lethal duos at every skill position.

Players to watch


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Offensive line

The Auburn front line has had some struggles this season. The unit has allowed 13 sacks through five contests, but they have had to deal with injuries to its two top centers, Nick Brahms and Tate Johnson, in an already newly put-together offense with a new offensive scheme under first-year OC Eric Kiseau. 

Senior Brandon Council moved into the center spot last week, and the o-line only allowed two sacks as opposed to four against Missouri and six against Penn State.

If they can continue the trend of allowing two fewer sacks each week, they will not allow a sack to UGA. That is a big ask, but not as big as one might think. UGA is 11th in the SEC with six sacks this year, and it did not get any sacks despite steamrolling Oregon in week one.

Koy Moore (WR)

No. 0 entered Auburn with a lot of hype around him, and he is starting to burst onto the scene after a slow start to the season. He led the team with four catches for 74 yards against Missouri, and he made a few more big catches against his former team last week, garnering four more catches for 55 yards.

As long as he isn't asked to throw the ball again, like he was in the red zone last week, expect Moore to continue to help spread the defense out and cover the middle of the field, as well as be a reliable red zone target.

D.J. James (DB)

The Oregon transfer has already been a difference maker for Auburn this season with five pass breakups and 13 tackles, but he made his first official start last week versus LSU in place of Jaylin Simpson. James might be ready to have a breakout performance this week, and he will need to step up against an impressive UGA receiver arsenal.


Ladd McConkey (WR)

The sophomore torched Auburn for 130 yards and a TD on five catches last year. He is continuing his good work this season with 20 receptions for 266 yards and a score. The speedster is a constant deep threat, and his longest catch is for 37 yards this season after he popped a season-long 60-yarder versus Auburn last season, a season-best as a freshman.

Malaki Starks (DB)

The freshman out of Jefferson, Ala. has done nothing but impress this season from the start. In UGA's season opener, he leaped and snatched a pass out of the air from Nix with one hand. He struck again versus South Carolina. That time, he was able to display his running ability with a 42-yard return. He, along with teammate Christopher Smith, are tied for second in the SEC with two interceptions a piece.

Starks has also added three more pass breakups and 23 tackles in his debut college season.

Tight ends

Tight end is another position where UGA has a two-headed monster. The Bulldogs have a speedy playmaker in Brock Bowers, and he is complimented by 6-foot-7, 270-pound Darnell Washington.

"(Bowers) is a fantastic football player," Harsin said. "He shows that, and he plays extremely hard, makes plays for them and they try to utilize him in a lot of ways. We know that he's going to be a challenge. Darnell Washington, another tight end, and a big guy. Both those tight ends and the personal packages, they utilize them well."

Bowers is tied for the most receptions on UGA's roster with McConkey (20) and leads in reception yards with 342, which is also good for fifth in the SEC. He also leads his team with a pair of TD grabs and has UGA's longest catch of the year with a 78-yard catch. 

On the other hand, the physically dominant Washington has 10 grabs for 184 yards. He isn't quite as explosive as Bowers, but he is still as bruising of a receiver as there is in the nation with the ball in his hands.

Keys to victory


It is no secret: turnovers are Auburn's biggest issue. The Tigers are losing the turnover battle this year 11-2. Despite getting turnovers in each of their last two games, Auburn has thrown at least one interception in every game this season. T.J. Finley has thrown four and Ashford has thrown three balls into the hands of the other team.

Despite Ashford's hot start last week, he turned the ball over twice, and that won't go unpunished on the road against the No. 2 team in the country. 

Defensively, Auburn took a big hit this week when it announced Eku Leota is having pectoral surgery and will likely miss the remainder of the 2022 season. However, Auburn needs to continue to find ways to bother QB Stetson Bennett's rhythm without blitzing heavily. If Auburn brings the house, Bennett is smart enough to evade rushers and deliver quick, accurate passes.

However, if Auburn gives Bennett all day in the pocket, he has plenty of deep targets that have the potential to leave any secondary in shambles. The Auburn defense has to mix up its packages and remain unpredictable while finding a way to get to Bennett.


The six sacks on the season for the Bulldog defense isn't exactly flattering, but they are getting the job done. They are allowing 89.2 rushing yards per game as opposed to rushing for 178.6 yards per game. 

They force the opponent to pass and then are able to create takeaways. That has been what Auburn's opponents have had success doing so far. If they continue that trend, things look good for the Bulldogs.

With a senior and returning starter at QB in 5-foot-11, 190-pound Bennett, UGA is sure of what it has behind center. With only one interception this season, Bennett brings a much more consistent presence to an offense with running backs Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh in the backfield.

"(Bennett's) a winner," Harsin said. "He makes plays, he's plenty fast enough to run the ball, he's plenty fast enough to scramble around and make plays. He finds the open receivers and he's accurate. He manages their offense really well, and that's one thing that I've got a chance to see him and watch those guys for a couple years and watch him as a player... I don't see a whole lot of weaknesses in his game."

Bennett and the Bulldogs will look to bounce back from a scare from Missouri last week, and Auburn is looking to get back in the win column and pull off a huge upset and dethrone the reigning champs at 2:30 p.m. CST on CBS from Sanford Stadium in Athens.

Noah Griffith | Assistant Sports Editor

Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.

Twitter: @NoahGG01

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