By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. -- Every year is different. Take this year's Auburn-Georgia game for example.
Sure, it might look similar to last year at first glance. The Tigers entered that game in a very similar position they find themselves in now. They were 7-2, ranked No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings and in control of their own destiny in the SEC West. And not unlike this year, running back Kamryn Pettway was out due to injury.
However, that's where the similarities end.
"We are healthier as a team this year and our starting quarterback is healthy," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "I couldn't say that the last two years. I feel good about where we are going into this game. We are getting some of our defensive guys healthier, too. Like I said, each year is different. Our team has a little different mindset than they had last year."
On offense, there is a certain sense of confidence that might not have been there a year ago.
Without Pettway last year, Auburn struggled to move the ball against the likes of Vanderbilt, Georgia and Alabama down the stretch. This year, Kerryon Johnson has shown he's more than capable of carrying the load. The junior running back is averaging an SEC-best 124 yards per game this season, and he's tied for third nationally with 15 rushing touchdowns despite playing in only seven games.
The other major difference from last year to this year is at quarterback where newcomer Jarrett Stidham continues to look more and more comfortable each game. He currently leads the SEC in completion percentage (66.8), and he's coming off a game at Texas A&M where he went 20 of 27 for 268 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
"We're just executing a lot better all the way around," Stidham said. "We're kind of hitting our stride at the right time, so it's been good."
Statistically speaking, Auburn is one of only five FBS teams averaging more than 220 yards rushing and 220 yards passing per game this season. The Tigers have scored 42 or more points in five of their six SEC games, and their 261 points scored in their first six league games are a program best, topping the previous mark of 229 points set in 2010.
But this year's Georgia team is different, too. The Bulldogs come in ranked No. 1 in the playoff rankings, and they boast a defense that's top five nationally in both points (11.7) and yards (254.1) allowed per game. They are one of only six teams in college football allowing fewer than 100 rushing yards per game this season.
"It's going to be a hard challenge, but we're going to take on that challenge and we know that's what we have to do," Johnson said. "We're built to run the ball, and that's what we're going to have to do to win the game. In my mind and the offensive line's mind, those statistics are great, but we have a job to go out there and do and that's what we plan to do."
At the end of the day, this isn't last year's offense. This doesn't appear to be the same offense that struggled out of the gate this year. You're seeing better execution, better blocking, more explosive plays, and from the quarterback to the skill positions to the offensive line, it's been a better overall product on the field since SEC play began.
"I think it is our players," Malzahn said. "This is a player's game, and they bought into what Chip [Lindsey] is doing, and you can see them getting more confidence each week. They have improved, and they have been balanced."
That confidence will be put to the test Saturday. But every year is different, which means Auburn can flip the script in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry.
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: