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Luster lacking in old rivalry

Photo by Paul Dehner

Photo by Paul Dehner

ATHENS -- The Deep South's oldest rivalry looks a little tarnished.

When Georgia hosts Auburn between the hedges Saturday night, it will be the first time since 1991 the teams have met with neither ranked in The Associated Press poll. The Bulldogs (5-4, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) are trying to become bowl eligible -- which used to be a given in these parts -- while Auburn (7-3, 3-3) is trying to build on a modest two-game winning streak.

The teams will be meeting for the 113th time in a rivalry that began in 1892 and has featured some truly wild games over the years. Georgia will be going for its first four-game winning streak over the Tigers since the 1940s.

But much of the usual buzz surrounding the game is missing. The SEC division races have already been settled, removing a potential prize that's been there so many times before.

"Maybe from the outside it seems like that," Georgia fullback Shaun Chapas acknowledged. "I can see how people would say that, but personally I don't feel that way."

The Bulldogs have so many big rivalries -- from Florida and Tennessee in the SEC to Georgia Tech for state bragging rights -- it's easy for the oldest one of all to get overlooked. Besides, this will be the second year in a row the teams have met after both were eliminated from the conference race.

Last season, Georgia slogged to a 17-13 victory over an Auburn team just playing out the string under lame-duck coach Tommy Tuberville.

"I know last year there wasn't as much emphasis on it," said Aron White, who starts at tight end for the Bulldogs. "This year, I feel people are getting up for it a little bit more. It's a night game. We're trying to redeem ourselves this season. We're trying to get bowl eligible, too. It's definitely a rivalry that's going to be a little bit bigger than it was last year."

But the significance of this one pales in comparison to previous meetings.

Like 1983, when both were ranked in the Top 5 and Auburn won a defensive slugfest to end Georgia's three-year run as SEC champion. Or 1986, when Auburn turned the hoses on Bulldog fans celebrating a stunning upset. Or 2002, when Georgia threw a last-minute touchdown pass to win the SEC East, its first conference title of any kind in 20 years. Or 2004, when the Tigers knocked off the Bulldogs on the way to a perfect season.

Then again, it would be a stretch to say this is just another game.

There's too much history, too much passion, too many close ties between the schools.

Auburn, located just across the state line in Alabama, has traditionally done much of its recruiting in its neighboring state. The Tigers have 20 players from Georgia on their current roster -- four of them starters.

While the Bulldogs tend to focus on their own state for recruiting, coach Mark Richt does have a couple of Auburn grads on his staff: defensive line coach Rodney Garner and offensive line coach Stacy Searels. And, of course, everyone still brings up that peculiarity from a previous era: longtime Georgia coach Vince Dooley went to Auburn, and former Auburn coach Pat Dye was a Georgia grad.

"We have a lot of people on our roster from the stage of Georgia," said Gene Chizik, Auburn's first-year coach. "There's a lot of similarities. If you just look at coaches that have been at Georgia and now at Auburn or Auburn that went to Georgia, there's a lot of history there."

A lot of history, indeed.

Only six other set of rivals have played each other more often than Auburn-Georgia. In perhaps the strangest twist, the road team usually has more success: the Tigers have an 18-10 mark in Athens, while the Bulldogs are 14-9-2 when visiting Auburn (the series was played up until 1959 in neutral Columbus, Ga., located right on the state border).

"It's kind of a different series," Chizik said. "It seems like the team that's playing away from home wins a good bit of the time, for whatever reason. It's a great rivalry. I think the fans love it."

Auburn is eager to snap its first three-game losing streak in the series since the early 1980s, when the Herschel Walker-led Bulldogs dominated the SEC.

"I think about it. I think a lot of players do," Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens said. "I haven't beaten Georgia since I got here. I haven't experienced that and I feel like a lot of players don't want to leave here without having experienced that. Especially with us going there, that would be a big victory for us."

The Tigers haven't forgotten their last trip to Sanford Stadium two years ago. Georgia surprisingly came out in black jerseys for the first time in the modern era and romped to a 45-20 victory that was much closer most of the game.

"Out of nowhere, it got out of hand," Stevens recalled. "They were dancing on the sidelines. I think that was the first game that they wore those black jerseys. That's always in the back of your minds."

Sounds like there's still a little fire in this tarnished rivalry.