ATHENS -- David Andrews, Merritt Hall and Kyle Karempelis have done some looking back this week. The three now all play for Georgia, but three years ago, they were on the same high school team, and they ended Nick Marshall’s high school career.
It was Wesleyan vs. Wilcox County in the quarterfinals of the GHSA Class A playoffs. Marshall was the star cornerback for Wilcox County and a Georgia commitment. So was Andrews, an offensive lineman for Wesleyan. Hall and Karempelis walked on to Georgia.
Wesleyan won the game, powered by Karempelis’ three touchdowns and nearly 300 rushing yards.
Marshall had a great game, too, but he turned the ball over three times.
“They beat us my junior year in high school to knock us out. So it was a little revenge,” Andrews said. “And then at the same time knowing we were gonna play together. Or we thought.”
Marshall spent just one season at Georgia before being dismissed. Now he’s the starting quarterback at Auburn, which enters Saturday ranked seventh in the BCS while chasing an SEC title. Andrews is the starting center for No. 25 Georgia, which is hoping to salvage something from an injury-ravaged season by knocking off the Tigers.
“We know if we’re at our best, we’re a very good football team,” Andrews said. “And we weren’t our best against Missouri and Vanderbilt. So I think we know that those losses were on us, and we put ourselves in this position. But I don’t think anyone feels like we’re an underdog. We know if we go out and play our game, we can play with anybody.”
Here are the five factors that figure to be the most decisive on Saturday:
Statistically, Georgia (6-3) has the best run defense that Auburn will have faced so far. And the previous two best (Mississippi State and LSU) did the best job containing Marshall and tailback Tre Mason.
That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs will stop the Tigers. It just means they have the potential to play well enough to keep it close.
“Our front seven likes to hit, so we like to stop the run,” Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We’ve got great corners that’s prepared for this.”
Offensive margin for error
Georgia star tailback Todd Gurley admitted earlier this week he “probably” still won’t be as healthy as possible, in his third game back from a sprained ankle. But Gurley at 90 percent is still pretty good, and teamed with quarterback Aaron Murray and the potent passing attack, the Bulldogs can put up a lot of points against an average-at-best Auburn defense.
The question is how many points they need to score. It figures to be a shootout, so Murray, Gurley and company might have to put up points at least half the time they touch the ball, and more importantly, avoid any turnovers.
This favors Auburn, at least statistically. The Tigers rank second in the SEC in both red-zone offense and defense. Georgia’s offense also has been good in the red zone, in large part because place-kicker Marshall Morgan has been so good.
But Georgia’s defense has struggled, yielding points 28 of the 32 times opponents have reached the 20. And it has been touchdowns on 22 of those trips.
This also seems to favor Auburn. The Tigers have the nation’s most prolific punt returner in Chris Davis and have been solid otherwise on special teams.
Georgia, meanwhile, has committed some serious errors on special teams. It has avoided that the past two weeks and at minimum needs to make that a three-game streak. Another special-teams mistake Saturday would not only be important on the scoreboard, but demoralizing for a team that knows it might have cost it a few games already.
Marshall has done a good job passing the ball when he has needed to this season. But Georgia also has the best pass rush, at least statistically, that he will have seen this year. The Bulldogs have 23 sacks, ranking behind only Missouri in the SEC.
The problem for Georgia is that it has been abysmal in forcing turnovers, with only nine, the least in the conference. If the Bulldogs can force a turnover or two, it could swing the game.
That’s what happened three years ago, when Wesleyan -- with those three future Bulldogs -- knocked off Wilcox County. Marshall committed the three turnovers, including two crucial ones in the second half to turn the game.
Georgia wouldn’t mind a reprise of that game.
“I’ve thought about it here or there, and yeah, it is kind of funny how me, David and Kyle were all on that team playing against Nick,” Hall said. “We were joking about it and saying how it’s kind of ironic. But yeah, Nick was a very good football player and still is.”