One of the things that distinguishes the best rivalries is not how often something is on the line, but whether anything needs to be on the line at all to make it a must-watch game. And even when one of the teams is terrible, there's something about a rivalry that has "oldest" in the title that makes you want to watch anyway.
Georgia and Auburn don't need anything on the line to make them hate each other. This is not Auburn's most important rivalry, of course; that distinction still belongs the annual Iron Bowl tilt with Alabama. Where it ranks in Georgia's list of rivalries probably depends on which generation you ask. But even for those who don't put Auburn in first, they're not going to put it far down the line -- and aside from Alabama, it's hard to come up with a team that the Tigers hate more than Georgia.
All that said, there are some relatively high stakes in this game for both teams. Both could enter Saturday night needing a victory simply to stay alive in their respective division races. Even if it falls short of an SEC Championship Game berth and inaugural college football playoff, Auburn could solidify its case for one of the playoff-related bowls with a win here followed by a victory in the Iron Bowl. Georgia is by no means out of the picture for one of the big-money postseason games, and a win here would put that goal well within reach.
No, these teams don't need a reason to hate each other. But having so much at stake makes it that much more interesting.
1The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. With a 38-0 win in 2012, Georgia had finally worked the record in this series back to an even 54-54-8 mark, the first time since 1987 that the Dawgs were .500 against Auburn. Then they went and lost to Auburn last year and put themselves back below the break-even point. So finally getting the Tigers at home after a two-year road streak due to realignment should fix things, right? Maybe not. This is the odd series where each team actually has a better record in the other team's stadium. Georgia is 11-17 at Sanford Stadium (the teams played in Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Montgomery and Savannah in many years, because neutral-site games are not new) and 15-11-2 at Jordan-Hare, though the Bulldogs have won three straight in Athens.
2Playing Catch-Up. Both Georgia and Auburn have worked themselves into holes in their respective divisional races. Auburn needs a win just to remain alive -- either Alabama or Mississippi State will lock up a sixth win Saturday, meaning Auburn can't lose another game and stay in the division race. Of course, Auburn would be knocked out no matter what if Mississippi State wins. And depending on what happens in other games Saturday, Georgia could also be put in a precarious situation with a loss. If the Dawgs lose and Florida beats South Carolina -- which seems more likely than not at this point -- then Georgia is out. Because the South Carolina-Florida game and the Mississippi State-Alabama games are in earlier timeslots, both teams will go into this game knowing whether it's a must-win or, in Auburn's case, completely beside the point.
3Todd Gurley's Return. He's baaaaack. Whether you think the amateurism rule is dumb or necessary, and whether you think Gurley's four-game suspension was overkill or not -- it's over. Georgia's star running back comes back with the Dawgs in the hole we pointed out above, but still technically in contention and with a chance to at least wreck some seasons going forward. Gurley's been gone almost a month, so in case you forgot: He's really, really good. Before the suspension, he was averaging 8.2 yards a carry and 154.6 yards a game. If Gurley keeps up that pace, he could still pile up 1,200 yards -- regardless of the bowl game.
4Running Games. Quick -- which team leads the SEC in yards per carry this season? Despite Gurley's four-game absence, the answer is Georgia, clocking in at 6.2 yards per attempt. Auburn is not far behind, ranking second in the conference with 5.9 yards per carry, and the Tigers actually average about 30 more yards a game than the Bulldogs. Particularly with Gurley's return, it's hard to see either of these teams putting the ball in the air very much unless they have to. Georgia ranks 12th in the SEC with 25 passing attempts per game, and Auburn is 13th with 24 attempts per game. (The only team with fewer passes thrown per game is LSU, with 21.9 attempts per game, at least four of which could be ill-timed.) While it's true that you run because you're winning, this game might be the kind of match-up where you also win because you run (and mix in some well-timed passes).
5Who's lucky, again? Quick -- which team leads the SEC in turnover margin? Once again, it's Georgia, tied with Ole Miss (which has played one more game) for tops in the league with a plus-13 margin. Part of that is because Georgia is very good at holding onto the football; with six total turnovers, the Dawgs are the only SEC team still in single digits. Georgia and Auburn actually have the same number of takeaways -- 19 -- but the Tigers have given the ball up 14 times, for a plus-5 margin. But the difference is interesting -- Auburn has grabbed three more interceptions (which tend to be less influenced by luck) than Georgia, and the Bulldogs have seven fewer lost fumbles (which tend to be more influenced by luck) than the Tigers. Still, if the game comes down to turnovers, the advantage probably goes to Georgia.
THREE TO WATCH
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: HEY, CAMERON ARTIS-PAYNE LEADS THE SEC IN RUSHING. You might have missed that, though it's starting to get a little bit of attention. Artis-Payne is benefiting some from the time that Gurley has missed -- Artis-Payne is averaging about 20 yards less per game than his Georgia counterpart -- but the Auburn running back is still one of the most underrated players in college football right now. He just needs 10 yards to pass the 1,200-yard mark and is averaging 5.7 yards a carry and 132.2 yards a game. In a season completely devoid of Todd Gurley, he would be the front-runner for best running back in the SEC. As it is, he's still a dangerous player.
Quan Bray, PR, Auburn: Bray is also a wide receiver, but he's one of the best punt returners int he country right now, averaging 20.5 yards per return and scoring on two of his 12 run-backs. Georgia's punting game is subpar, though it hasn't been burned that badly on returns; opponents have eked out just 51 yards on nine returns so far this season. That could change in a hurry if the Dawgs don't keep up with Bray.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Gurley bears watching just to see if he's back at 100 percent (or something approaching it) once he finds himself in an actual game. Even at 75 percent or so, Gurley is still terrifying, but if the running back is at full speed, then you have a recipe for Georgia to prove the odds-makers right and knock off the Tigers. There's more reward potential for Georgia here than risk; if Gurley is at less than full speed, there's still enough depth at running back for the Dawgs to make this a game.
It's not hard to come up with a case on the intangibles alone for Georgia to win this game: Mississippi State beats Alabama, rendering this game a moot point for Auburn, while Georgia finds out that South Carolina has beaten Florida and the Dawgs badly need this one. Gurley has a great game in his return and his teammates feed off of that for an emotional win. It's not out of the question. But it's dangerous to make calls based on that kind of series of events. Put these teams on a neutral field, and I like Auburn by more than a field goal -- meaning that even if you assume that the Tigers' record in Sanford Stadium is an anomaly, I like them to win this game as well. It will be closer than we might have thought a month ago, but the Tigers build on their all-time lead in the series. Auburn 42, Georgia 35