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PREVIEW: Bulldogs face tough test at Auburn

Georgia coach Mark Richt and the Bulldogs can keep their slim hopes alive of an SEC East Division title alive with a win on the road today against Auburn. (Reuters)

Georgia coach Mark Richt and the Bulldogs can keep their slim hopes alive of an SEC East Division title alive with a win on the road today against Auburn. (Reuters)

AUBURN, Ala. — For the second season in a row, Georgia is heading to the plains to play at Auburn.

But the team the Bulldogs will face today is vastly improved from the team they beat 38-0 a season ago. Under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn is 9-1 and still in contention for the SEC West division crown.

“We’re walking into a situation with a team that is very confident and has a lot of momentum and is already used to winning,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Going into the season you wouldn’t have said that, but by game ten they are used to winning. Teams like that are very difficult to beat. It’s a great challenge for us and we are looking forward to it.”

Georgia (6-3, 4-2 SEC) is 1-2 on the road this season with losses at Clemson and at Vanderbilt. The Auburn game presents another huge road challenge.

“Every time you go to somebody else’s house, you feel like an underdog,” Richt said. “You are outnumbered. You are the team that they don’t want to win. The other team’s getting cheered, and you’re getting booed. Every time something good happens for them, they go crazy. Every time something good happens for us, they get quiet or whatever they do. I think you feel like an underdog every time you go to somebody’s house. You get that sensation.”

Georgia needs to pull things together to stay in contention for the SEC East Division crown. A loss would all but eliminate the Bulldogs from winning their third straight SEC East Division title.

Coming off a 45-6 win over Appalachian State, Georgia is getting healthier. The return of running back Todd Gurley has provided a boost. The Bulldogs are 5-1 when Gurley is healthy.

Georgia senior quarterback Aaron Murray is looking forward to the challenge of playing at Auburn.

“They’ve assembled a couple new parts here and there, but we just have to execute,” Murray said. “We know if we do our thing offensively, if we prepare hard Monday through Friday, if we understand the game plan and we go out there and do our thing (today) then we can put points up.”

It’s Auburn, however, who is the favorite in the 117th edition of the game known famously as the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.”

“Obviously, we have a big challenge for us this weekend. We are playing what was one of the top teams in the country at the first of the year before they had injuries. They are getting healthy. They have 16 returning starters from a team that almost won the SEC Championship last year. They have one of the better quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It will be a huge challenge for our guys.”

Two weeks later, the challenge only gets greater.

Provided Auburn survives Georgia, awaiting the Tigers in the annual Iron Bowl on Nov. 30 will be No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0), which will also have to come to Jordan-Hare Stadium. That would set up a showdown for the SEC West title and trip in the conference championship game.

The winner of that game, of course, has historically gone on to play for the BCS national title. Although, with one blemish on its record already (vs. LSU on Sept. 21), Auburn may still need help in the form of a loss by any of the other teams ahead of the Tigers to slip into the back door of the national championship game.

These scenarios, however, don’t concern Malzahn and Auburn with the Bulldogs and Murray bearing down today.

“No, we have not said anything (to the team about what’s at stake). We have not even gone there,” said Malzahn, the Tigers’ first-year coach who is widely believed to be the leading candidate for college football’s 2013 Coach of the Year award after turning last year’s 3-9 Auburn team completely around in one season. “All we have talked about is we have our hands full with Georgia, playing at home, and that is the only thing on our mind. At the end of the season, we will look back and deal with all that stuff.”