ATHENS -- Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sat down for interviews this week and offered up a wry smile.
“I heard there was a big game this week,” Mason said.
Georgia and Auburn have gotten used to playing meaningful games, given the success of their programs and the time of year they meet. This one isn’t quite the game of the century, as both enter with two losses, but it’s shaping up to be the game of the year for Georgia, for reasons competitive and emotional.
Sometime around 7 p.m. on Saturday, Georgia’s starting lineups will be announced to the crowd. And when Todd Gurley’s name is called out as the tailback, undoubtedly there will be a roar.
There will be more roars when the star tailback, back from a four-game suspension for selling autographs, touches the ball for the first time. And if Gurley scores a touchdown -- not exactly a stretch -- there will be even more excitement.
Georgia’s run game hasn’t exactly suffered in Gurley’s absence, so the emotional value of his return might be more important than his actual need running the ball. But Auburn’s run defense has been very good, too, so the Bulldogs are happy to insert one of the nation’s top players back into the starting lineup.
“Todd’s back, I know that’s what everyone is making it out to be,” Mason said. “But I’m just excited to have another really good player.”
Then there’s the importance in the big picture as both teams still retain miniscule hopes of reaching the four-team national playoff. The winner of this game still needs to win out and have plenty of help elsewhere. The loser is out.
Auburn’s hopes to win the SEC West would also be done.
Georgia, on the other hand, could clinch the SEC East by the end of the night. If it wins and Missouri loses at Texas A&M (a game that starts at 7;30 p.m.), then the Bulldogs are in the SEC championship game.
But if Georgia loses, and Missouri and Florida (which is hosting South Carolina earlier in the day) both win, then the Bulldogs can’t win the division.
“We just have to go out and focus on this week,” Georgia senior defensive lineman Mike Thornton said. “This week is our championship. This game is our championship.”
Georgia will be playing at home for the first time in 42 days. That’s another reason to expect the home crowd to be very amped up.
“It’s going to be exciting to actually have people cheering for you and not booing for you,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “I like the games that are earlier in the day, so we can wake up and get going. But when you’re on a stage like this against an opponent like this, you kind of want the prime-time, under-the-lights game. I think this game is going to be big, and it’s going to be special.”
There’s also the specter of how last year’s game ended -- painfully for Georgia, and the team and its fans remember.
Oh, and the desperation pass that won the game was thrown by Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who returns to Sanford Stadium for the first time since he was dismissed from Georgia in February of 2012.
There’s plenty to digest, all in a game that appears a toss-up. Las Vegas has made Georgia a two-point favorite, a very nominal number for a home team.
It’s not just that both teams have the same record (7-2). It’s also that their strengths and weaknesses match up well.
Both teams run the ball well -- Georgia is first in the SEC, and Auburn is second. Both teams have also defended the run well, although the past two games have been a struggle.
Both teams have also thrown it well enough when necessary. And both teams have very suspect pass defenses, especially Auburn, which ranks 102st in the country in that category. Georgia is ranked higher (16th), but anyone who remembers the South Carolina game knows the Bulldogs are by no means stalwarts against the pass yet.
That would include defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who was in charge of Florida State’s defense against Auburn in last season’s national championship game.
Yes, yet another story line, but Gurley’s return and the implications on the SEC picture are paramount.
“There’s a lot of factors as far as Todd coming back, what happened last year. But the thing we’re focusing most on is Auburn is right in front of us,” Mason said. “That’s what we talk about and what we focus on. This is our last SEC game that we can kind of control our own destiny.”