AUBURN, Ala. -- In a span of three weeks, college football's oldest rivalry will be followed by one of its fiercest.
And No. 7 Auburn will be right in the middle of both.
The Tigers will host two of the biggest football games of the 2013 college football season beginning Saturday when they host No. 25 Georgia 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 (9-1 overall, 5-1 in the SEC) survives Georgia (6-3, 4-2) -- which is no easy task, considering the Bulldogs have won six of the last seven meetings, including a 38-0 romp last year -- 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 SEC record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray bearing down this weekend.
"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."
First, the Tigers will have to deal with Murray, the Bulldogs' star senior who broke his third SEC record of the season last week in UGA's 45-6 rout of FCS program Appalachian State. He's now the all-time SEC leader in touchdowns (115), total offense (12,896 yards) and passing yards (12,568), and Murray will bring a personal two-game win streak into Saturday's game.
Although, with UGA star running back Todd Gurley finally healthy, the Bulldogs may take to the ground more in this one after Auburn's run defense was gutted for more than 200 yards in each of its last two wins against Arkansas and Tennessee. Georgia is 5-1 when Gurley starts, and he's already projected to be the top running back taken in the 2015 NFL Draft.
It's no secret running the ball is what Auburn plans to do. With quarterback Nick Marshall -- a former UGA recruit who was booted from the team in February of 2012 -- still trying to heal his ailing shoulder, the Tigers have attempted just 15 passes in the last two games while piling up 677 combined rushing yards, including 214 by Marshall last week against the Vols.
Auburn's rushing attack is so dynamic, it's not only the most improved in the nation from a year ago, it's now one of the best.
Thanks to the SEC's second-leading rusher Tre Mason (1,038 yards, 16 touchdowns) and Marshall (734 yards, seven TDs), the Tigers have improved 104 spots (from 118th to 14th) in the NCAA's total offense rankings, the biggest improvement in the nation in that category. Auburn is averaging 320 yards a game on the ground -- third-best in FBS -- and 38.6 points per game this season.
"I'm very impressed with Auburn and what they're doing," UGA coach Mark Richt said. "They are the team with the greatest turnaround of anybody from last year to this year. It's super impressive what coach Malzahn has done. Everywhere he has gone he's won."
Malzahn's 10th win of his coaching career at Auburn would be a huge one considering what's at stake. It would also break a 54-54-8 tie in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry.