ATHENS, Ga. — Three weeks isn’t much time at all.
Certainly not enough to forget a 23-point blowout.
Now the question is: Can No. 6 Georgia turn the sting of its lone defeat — not to mention the gleeful boasting of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn — into the sort of controlled anger and nagging motivation that produces a vastly different result in the Southeastern Conference championship game?
No matter how you slice it, that Nov. 11 mismatch at Jordan-Hare Stadium looms large over Saturday’s rematch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“We’ll have a lot of energy, a lot of emotions,” Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter said Monday. “But when it comes down to it, those emotions aren’t going to win the game. It’s how you play.”
No. 4 Auburn (10-2) is playing as well as any team in the country, winning five straight games by an average of 22 points since a seemingly crushing loss to LSU.
That streak includes a 40-17 rout of Georgia , when the Bulldogs were ranked No. 2 by The Associated Press and sitting atop the College Football Playoff standings, and last Saturday’s equally impressive 28-16 victory over top-ranked Alabama .
Suddenly, the Tigers are a trendy pick to win it all.
But they’ve got to beat Georgia (11-1) for the second time in less than a month.
And Malzahn may come to regret what he said right after the previous meeting. Walking away from his on-field interview with CBS, he was overheard commenting, “We whipped the dog crap out of ’em, didn’t we!”
The coach wasn’t wrong, considering Auburn outgained the Bulldogs 488-230 in total yards and shut down the dynamic running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
But those words are sure to be plastered all over the Bulldogs’ training facility this week.
“It is certainly a normal human response to want revenge when we are harmed,” Will Freeman, the track coach at Iowa’s Grinnell College who also teaches sports psychology, wrote in an email. “Can it increase motivation? Yes. Can that motivation go bad? Also, yes. Optimal performance requires the athlete find the optimal level of motivation and excitement for the situation. Too much, and the athlete can lose focus, control and mental awareness about the situation. Just as important, too much arousal can cause timing and rhythm issues with the athlete that result in poor performance.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was part of a rematch situation during the 2011 season while serving as Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
The Crimson Tide lost to LSU 9-6 in overtime during the regular season , only to get another shot at the Tigers in the national championship game.
Alabama dominated the second meeting in New Orleans, claiming the BCS title with a stifling 21-0 victory .
Looking back on LSU’s poor performance, then-coach Les Miles said recently the team that loses the first game probably has an easier time getting its players motivated for the rematch.
“They plan and they work and there’s a stronger commitment than the team that looks back on a hard-fought victory, but a victory nonetheless,” Miles said. “I think once you’ve beaten a team, it takes a special view of how to get them ready to beat that team again.”
But it’s not unusual, at least in the SEC, for the team that won the first game to take the second as well.
This will be the seventh time in the title game’s 26-year history that there’s a rematch of a regular-season matchup. Five of the six times it happened before, the same team won both games, the only exception coming in 2001 when LSU lost to Tennessee 26-18 in late September but bounced back to win the SEC crown with a 31-20 triumph.
“You can watch the tape of the game,” Smart said. “It fires you up pre-game and gets you all excited, but when the toe meets leather it’s about striking people, it’s about speed, it’s about blocking, tackling, it’s about having composure. It’s about having discipline. It really doesn’t revert back to who won the previous game.”
What makes this a bit different is the proximity of the two meetings — all previous SEC rematches were at least seven weeks after the first game — and these teams are especially bitter foes even though they’re in different divisions. Billed as the Deep South’s oldest rivals, they first played in 1892 and have clashed nearly every season since then for a total of 121 meetings.
Georgia leads by the slimmest of margins, 57-56 with eight ties.
If Smart is taking notes on all that history, and especially the most recent matchup, he isn’t letting on.
“The other game is past history,” he said. “Now whether or not you say that it helps mentally with your preparation, that somebody is more focused than the other, I don’t know. I certainly think Auburn was more focused down the stretch because their backs were against the wall. They had two losses. Now everybody’s backs are against the wall.”
Indeed, the winner of the rematch will almost certainly land a spot in the four-team playoff. The loser is eliminated from the national championship race.
“I think you should prepare the same, regardless of your record, regardless of a revenge factor and be real consistent in your approach so that the players are able to understand that it’s important to prepare right for every game,” Smart said. “We don’t say that this game is more important than the other because it’s the next game. The next game is always the most important.”