Auburn embracing chance to play Nos. 1 & 2, starting with Georgia

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No matter what the outcomes of Auburn’s two rivalry games are, the Tigers will play as big a role as any team in the country.

Auburn is back in control of its own destiny in the SEC and presumably the College Football Playoff as it prepares to host Georgia and Alabama, who were No. 1 and 2 in last week’s CFP rankings.

“I think that you’ve got to embrace the fact that you’re playing what the No. 1 or 2 team in the country on your home field,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Our goal is to win the SEC Championship and it has been since Day 1. This is the next step and it’s a great opportunity for us. So it’s a big game.

“We’re not looking any farther ahead than Saturday. This is a game we’ve been looking forward to. It’s here, and there’s a lot on the line for it. … This is a huge game, obviously, and our guys are excited and they’ve earned the right to be here in this moment.”

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Safety Tray Matthews, whose career began at Georgia in 2013, admitted it’s hard to downplay what’s at stake for Auburn this month.

“It doesn’t get any better than that. That’s what SEC football is all about,” Matthews said. “We’re embracing it. We have a big game in front of us right now that we are focused on. Right now you got to take one game at a time. Georgia is a great ball team. We got to be locked in and focused.”

Auburn (7-2, 5-1 SEC) is trying to stay in the hunt and earn its first win over a top-10 team since defeating Ole Miss on Nov. 1, 2014. Since losing the 2013 BCS National Championship, the Tigers are 1-7 in their last eight games against top 10 teams.

That record, an 0-6 mark against Georgia and Alabama over the past three years, and losses to Clemson and LSU featuring woeful offensive play this season is why this stretch is critical to Malzahn’s future on the Plains.

He did not want to acknowledge the enormity of this week to his own career.

“We’ve coached in SEC Championships and national championships,” Malzahn said. “This is a big game, but it’s not about me, it’s about our team. It’s a great opportunity in a huge game for our team for this year. I don’t get into for me, personally big games. I’ve been fortunate to coach in quite a few of them.”

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In what will be just the fourth time Auburn and Georgia will face off as top 10 foes in the 121st all-time meeting in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, the prior three such meetings (1971, 1983, 2004) were all won by the Tigers.

It’s the first time Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEC) will enter its rivalry meeting with Auburn undefeated since the Herschel Walker led the Bulldogs in 1983.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart is familiar with the attention and pressure out on top-ranked and undefeated teams from his time at Alabama. He said the Bulldogs are trying to “own the burden” of being the No. 1 team at this point in the season.

“I think the experience does help. I think a veteran team that’s had it happen before usually manages it better than a team for the first time,” Smart said. “But sometimes it can work it reverse, where you come to expect that and you get comfortable with that and you don’t respect it. These kids, that’s kind of been the case. Our group has taken ownership and they’ve really tried to own the burden of this by preparing the right way.

“We try to manage it as coaches. You don’t want to belabor the point, but they get it. They know they’re getting ready to go play a good team and they know where we are as a team. I think all those things help.”

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Auburn’s players are aware of the bigger pictures implications, but they recognize their margin for error is nonexistent and their postseason hopes can be dashed with a loss.

“We’re worried about the SEC championship right now, so whatever we have to do to get to that, that’s what we’re our plan is,” running back Kerryon Johnson said. “(The College Football Playoff is) not something that we can think about or that we have time to think about. If we lose this week, the college football world won’t care anything about us.

“So we just have to go out there and play this Saturday like it’s our last game. We’ve got to keep this thing rolling. That’s what we plan to do.”

James Crepea is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group.@JamesCrepea.

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