- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Auburn visits Georgia this weekend in the 115th installment of the Deep South's oldest football rivalry -- or, as it has more recently come to be known, the nation's dirtiest rivalry.
A recent Wall Street Journal story attempted to gauge which of 40 rivalry games was the nastiest, tallying "how many conduct and roughness penalties have been assessed in the last five meetings" between the teams. The Georgia-Auburn game earned the top spot, with 5.4 bad-behavior penalties per game. Georgia was responsible for 59 percent of those flags.
That number is inflated by the 10 personal fouls -- five on each side -- in last year's game, remembered for Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley's blatant late hit on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and for the skirmishes at the end of the game that resulted in Auburn defensive linemen Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc getting ejected for throwing punches. That forced them to miss the first half of the Iron Bowl the following week at Alabama.
"Everyone kind of thought it was a friendly rivalry up until last year when it got a little heated at the end," Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said this week. "So we know that they remember that from last year, and we remember them kind of coming after us towards the end, so I think it's going to be another physical game."
Many Georgia players saw it the same way. Because of the game's traditional spot late in the season and the stakes that are often involved, the game is typically hard-hitting and dramatic. But last year's game was characterized by some atypical venom -- particularly after another heavily debated Fairley hit knocked Murray out of the game on Georgia's final drive and the fights soon followed.
But that was not the only source of tension during the game. The physical style employed by Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and running back Michael Dyer also riled some of the Bulldogs' defenders.
"It was nasty," Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. "It was a lot of hitting. Cam was trying to run people over, Dyer was cutting it up. A lot of stiff-arms and things like that. When you're getting stiff-armed or people are trying to truck you, you know that they're trying to prove a point. That's one thing that we've tried to focus on changing around here. We don't really talk about it in these terms, but the hammer and nail analogy. We want to knock people back -- and that's every game, it doesn't matter who we're playing."
Fairley's roughhouse tactics created the enduring memory from the Tigers' win, however, and Fairley is still on many Georgia players' and fans' minds a year later. Robinson acknowledged as much Monday and said the Bulldogs did not respond well when confronted with Fairley's intense play last season.
"Looking back at it, he was just playing competitively," Robinson said. "There's some things that can go either way as a personal foul, but he was scratching and clawing, and that's what you want from a player.
"You don't want it to be nasty, and Aaron is my friend. I didn't want that to happen to him, but he [Fairley] wanted it more than we did, I think, last year. That's one of the reasons why they were able to win those big games. Even if he was dirty, he was giving his all. So we want to play legally but have that type of intensity."
Fairley went on to win the Lombardi Award as the nations' top college lineman, helped the Tigers to an undefeated season and a BCS national title and then left Auburn a year early. The Detroit Lions selected him in the first round of the NFL draft in April.
Fairley, Newton and most of the other significant players from Auburn's title run are now gone, so that might help prevent tensions from overflowing this weekend.
"He's not there anymore, so it's a new year, new start, and we're just focusing on protecting Murray and him not getting hit at all, no matter who's back there," Georgia center Ben Jones said. "If it's Nick Fairley that's still there, we don't want him to get hit. No matter who's there, we're going to try to protect him."
This year, it's the No. 14 Bulldogs (7-2, 5-1 SEC), not the No. 24 Tigers (6-3, 4-2) who still have division title hopes intact. A Georgia win combined with a South Carolina loss to Florida would secure an Eastern Division crown for coach Mark Richt's club for the first time since 2005.
That provides extra incentive for the Bulldogs to continue their trend in committing fewer penalties. The Bulldogs are fourth in the SEC with 46 yards penalized per game, including just one flag for 5 yards in last weekend's win against New Mexico State.
Avoiding 15-yard penalties was an area of emphasis during the offseason, Richt said, and he believes that has made a difference in the team's improved play.
"We've had very, very few penalties and very few personal foul penalties," Richt said. "As I've watched our guys recently, in this game in particular and the Florida game, we had none of that. It was a point of emphasis that we wanted to be very disciplined in that way -- play as physical as we can during the snap, and when it's over get off the field. If it's a scrimmage snap, get back to the huddle.
"That's what we want to continue to do. We don't want anything that would take our focus off the game or do anything that would hurt us as far as penalties or even worse an ejection or something like that."
So while nobody has forgotten what happened last year, it is not the prime motivating factor entering Saturday afternoon's rematch.
The Bulldogs are looking to win their eighth game in a row, defeat one of their biggest rivals, and maybe even clinch a spot in the conference championship game, depending on what happens in the South Carolina-Florida matchup earlier in the afternoon.
"The plan is to have the guys understand that no matter what happens in that game we've got to beat Auburn," Richt said. "For a lot of reasons. No. 1, they're Auburn."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.