Five things to know ahead of Georgia football's SEC matchup with Auburn Tigers

Georgia football’s SEC home opener is a Saturday 3:30 p.m. CBS game against rival Auburn in Sanford Stadium.

Here are five things to know about the matchup for the No. 2 Bulldogs:

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Early season moves in coaching carousel

By the time the first weekend of October ended, there were five head coach openings in the Power Five conferences.

That Auburn wasn’t one of them would have probably been considered a surprise before the season started.

Bryan Harsin arrives with a 3-2 record, 1-1 in the SEC, but after surviving a tumultuous offseason on the Plains, is it just a matter of time before Auburn opens up like Nebraska, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Colorado?

Allen Greene, the AD who hired Harsin, departed in August after resigning.

Kirby Smart this week called schools pulling the plug on coaches so early in the season “unfortunate.” Georgia Tech fired Geoff Collins and interim coach Brent Key led the Yellow Jackets to an upset at Pittsburgh last Saturday.

“It's become much more the nature of the beast for our profession with the salaries and television contracts and the amount of money people make,” Smart said. “The expectations go up and administration makes decisions much quicker, and that's their right to do it. It's not necessarily the best thing for our profession, but it comes with the territory. I don't think any of those coaches would tell you that they that they didn't understand that getting into it, but they would also tell you they didn't get into it for the amount of money they make either.”

Smart received a 10-year contract worth $112.5 million after winning the national championship in January. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney got new deals that topped Smart’s annual pay.

“For a lot of us it's not about the money,” Smart said. “It's about the opportunity to be around young people, coach them, pull them in the right direction. We all know what's at stake with these administrations and with the nature of beast in college football right now.

Harsin, 9-9 in his second season, has a grueling schedule in the next three games, too, at No. 9 Ole Miss, No. 25 Arkansas at home and then traveling to No. 23 Mississippi State.

“Every program’s got different things they’re working through and what they want,” Harsin said.

Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart shake hands after the game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. Georgia Bulldogs defeated the Auburn Tigers 34-10.
Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart shake hands after the game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. Georgia Bulldogs defeated the Auburn Tigers 34-10.

UGA offensive line aims to improve

Georgia’s offensive line shared the blame for its last outing at Missouri when Stetson Bennett was under pressure for much of the night and the running game didn’t get going until the fourth quarter.

“As an offense, we had some miscues and it was each guy kind of taking their turn,” center Sedrick Van Pran-Granger said.

Missouri had 9 tackles for loss. That accounts for 56.3 percent of Georgia's TFLs given up this season.

Van Pran-Granger and right tackle Warren McClendon had some rough moments.

“Can we do some better things in the run game to help them? Absolutely,” Smart said of his offensive line. “Can they do a better job in the run game? Absolutely. But it's not totally on the offensive line. It never is. It's a team sport. Everybody wants to point the finger at them. They're not to blame for anything. We all got to improve. On the offensive line, it's not a lack of execution or scheme. They didn't play anything different. It's physicality, winning up front, and more than that, giving them an opportunity to be successful. Sometimes that falls on me as a coach, on us as coaches, not just them.”

Auburn has its own offensive line issues.

The Tigers are giving up 6.8 tackles for loss per game, which ranks 110th nationally.

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“You’ve got to start with your interior guys, right?” Harsin said. “Not giving up penetration. …We’ve improved in that area. You’re going to play a really good D-line, a really good front seven. They’re going to bring pressure, eliminating that and then protecting our edges and finding ways to get on the perimeter as well.”

Auburn has started three different players at right guard, two at left guard and two at center with Brandon Council moving to center from left guard last week.

Dom Blaylock comes up clutch. AD Mitchell next?

Georgia can certainly use a boost out of its wide receiving corps.

Dominick Blaylock provided one at Missouri with his most receiving yards since way back on Nov. 16, 2019 against Auburn.

Blaylock snatched a third-and-9 pass over the middle for 18 yards to keep a field goal drive going and finished with 3 catches for 42 yards. That include a 15-yard catch on Georgia’s game-winning drive.

“Making some big catches, trying to help the team out any way possible, it felt good,” he said.

Blaylock twice has come back from a torn ACL. The first came in the SEC championship game in 2019 and the second in the preseason of 2020. He had 2 catches for 11 yards last season and now has 7 for 87.

“I’m feeling great out there,” he said. “I feel like back in freshman year.”

He’s still looking for that first touchdown of the season which could come in time given his opportunities.

“He's been really clutch, and what he does he does really well,” Smart said. “There are package plays for Dom and he does a nice job. His plays he made the other night were really clutch.”

Georgia got Arian Smith back for the first time in limited action at Missouri coming back from his high ankle sprain. He had one catch for 7 yards.

The return of AD Mitchell (5 catches for 69 yards and a TD in 2 games) would bring a needed threat outside.

Smart said after Tuesday's practice that Mitchell hit some good speed in conditioning coming off his ankle injury.

"It looks very promising," based on speed, he said, but he didn't know what kind of role he may have Saturday.

Corralling Auburn Tigers RB Tank Bigsby

Georgia won’t have Jalen Carter to help the run defense as it goes up against preseason first-team All-SEC running back Tank Bigsby and the Tigers.

The 6-foot, 213-pound Bigsby has rushed for 327 yards and 4 touchdowns on 69 carries. That ranks sixth in the SEC,

Carter is out with an MCL sprain sustained last week.

“Tank, he’s an explosive runner,” nose guard Zion Logue said. “He likes to get downhill. He can make you miss. We’ve just got to wrap him up and be ready to play.”

Georgia gave up a season-high 4.9 yards per carry against Missouri, but much of that number came on a 63-yard run.

Bigsby also has 13 catches for 87 yards.

“Run game and pass game, he's explosive,” Smart said. “He is a great guy out of the backfield to catch the ball. He catches screens well. He is vertical on his run game. He is tough. Yards after contact. He's one of those backs, that like the good ones, they get better with their carries.”

Georgia has held Bigsby in check the two times it has gone up against him, holding him to 31 yards on 8 carries in 2020 and 28 on 10 with a touchdown in 20201.

“He's extremely physical and runs with a low pad level, and is one of these particular SEC backs that you better bring your lunch pail when you come to tackle them,” Smart said.

Robert Beal still making an impact

Georgia is second to last in the SEC and 113th nationally in sacks with 6 on the season.

Robert Beal, the 2021 sack leader, didn’t have any in his first four games but got a half a sack with Kamari Lassiter against Missouri.

Beal had three tackles and three quarterback hurries in the game.

Coaches named him one of two defensive players of the game at Missouri along with safety Malaki Starks.

“Robert has done a great job,” Smart said. “He has one of the best plays in a game the other night on a goal line play where they almost scored (he made the tackle after a 1-yard run). We ended holding them to a field goal. He is playing really physical, playing more snaps. He had more opportunities last year.”

The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Beal, who returned as a super senior, had a team-leading 6 ½ sacks last season after having 1 in his first three seasons.

“Again, sacks are a number that statistics look at, but we don't sit there and say -- you don't get a lot of opportunities,” Smart said. “We haven't had a lot of third down and longs. Had more last week than in the past maybe where you get an opportunity to do that. That's just the way it's gone this year.”

Auburn is giving up 2.6 sacks per game, which ranks 95th nationally. The Tigers are second to last in scoring in the SEC at 22.4 points per game.

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: UGA football vs. Auburn: Five things to know for the game