The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry — and probably the nation’s most evenly matched college football series, tied up at 54-54-8 — kicks off at 3:39 Saturday in Auburn with the No. 7-ranked Tigers looking to avenge last year’s 38-0 whipping.
It’s a game full of interesting storylines. A daunting task faces Todd Grantham’s Georgia defense, as Gus Malzahn’s suddenly revived program — the college game’s most startling turnaround this season — boasts the SEC’s best and the nation’s third-best rushing attack. Better than that, the Tigers are led by Nick Marshall, a dual-threat quarterback who used to be a defensive back for Mark Richt’s Bulldogs.
But while the Dogs have had their troubles on the defensive side this season, defending the run has been their strong point, with Georgia ranking fourth in the conference and 20th nationally against the ground game. And for a Georgia offense that faltered midseason after an incredible rash of injuries to key personnel, the return of Todd Gurley (even at less than 100 percent) and Michael Bennett seems to have restored some of the explosiveness that early in the season made the Bulldogs one of the nation’s most prolific scoring attacks.
The key to the success of Malzahn’s uptempo offense so far has been its heavy reliance on the zone read option, with both Marshall and tailback Tre Mason racking up big yardage. In fact, the running game has been going so good for Auburn that the Tigers have attempted only a handful of passes in the past couple of games, meaning they don’t worry about defenses trying to make them one-dimensional — they already are that way by choice.
As Malzahn put it recently, “When you’re running the football just keep doing it. That’s kind of who we’re developing in to. I still believe we can throw the football. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can but when you don’t have to, there’s a pretty good feeling when you can line up and run the football at will.”
When the Tigers do throw it, it’s likely to be a long ball to Sammie Coates, whose 24.9 yards per catch average is second in the nation behind only Baylor’s Tevin Reese.
Auburn’s also pretty good in the aspect of the game that Richt tends to overlook: special teams. The Tigers’ Chris Davis leads the nation in punt returns and burned Tennessee 85 yards for a touchdown, and Auburn leads the league in kickoff return yardage, which isn’t a great matchup against the Bulldogs, who are last in the SEC in kickoff coverage. Against the Vols, Auburn also scored on a kickoff return.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn is, thankfully, mediocre. The Tigers — whose defensive line is overseen by former Georgia coach Rodney Garner — rank 10th in the SEC in total defense, ninth in run defense and 11th in pass defense, giving up 394.4 yards a game, including 238.8 through the air, so Georgia should be able to move the ball and score.
One caveat: The Tigers do rank fourth in the SEC in interceptions, with 11, and senior defensive end Dee Ford, who quashed Johnny Football’s final effort in Auburn’s big win over Texas A&M, has seven sacks in eight games. In that game, Manziel threw for 454 yards and four touchdowns and ran for a fifth TD, but was intercepted twice.
So, how do the No. 25 Bulldogs beat the juggernaut from the Plains?
I think as Gurley and Georgia’s running game go, so go the Bulldogs’ chances. If the Bulldogs can establish the run, Aaron Murray’s likely to see his receivers a lot more open, giving Georgia the offensive balance it needs. Twice this season the Dogs have come up with game-saving 8-minute-plus drives, and a few long clock-killers would come in very handy Saturday, keeping Marshall and Malzahn’s hurry-up offense cooling their heels on the sideline. Auburn’s defense isn’t that good, so that’s the team you want on the field as much as possible.
But, like South Carolina and LSU, this is going to have to be a game where playcaller Mike Bobo and Murray have nearly perfect games. With Georgia’s defense probably stressed to the max by the Auburn attack, the Dogs can’t afford to lose serve when they get the ball.
That’s not to say I think that stopping Marshall and Mason is a lost cause. It’s been slow and incremental — and interspersed with enough clueless plays that you might overlook it — but Georgia’s young defense actually has made progress this season, and the Dogs have moved up to fifth in the SEC in total defense and are tied for ninth in scoring defense at 28.8.
As Richt noted earlier this week, defending an attack like Auburn’s is a lot like defending Georgia Tech’s triple-option. It’s all about discipline and your defenders sticking with their assignments and playing the gaps they’re supposed to play.
Georgia’s defensive front has been the strength of the team so far, and if they can get into the Auburn backfield and disrupt those last-second read-option exchanges between Marshall and Mason, the Tigers have shown a penchant for fumbling at times this season. A few takeaways could do a lot for the Dogs’ chances in this game.
My biggest concern about Georgia’s defense is the same one Richt cited when he was asked on this week’s “Bulldogs Hotline” radio program in what area he’d most like to see defensive improvement. He said defending the outside perimeter, where the Dogs have at times this season tended to lose containment.
Of course, Georgia’s spotty pass defense always is a concern, but in choosing his poison, I think Grantham’s odds are better if he stacks the box against the run and forces Marshall to try and win the game with his inconsistent arm.
If the Dogs can avoid any special teams meltdowns, the defense slows down Auburn’s rushing attack a bit — I don’t think you can shut it down completely — and Georgia’s offense plays anywhere near its capability, I think the Red and Black can win.
But it probably will be a close one.
Now, let’s dig into some of this week’s Junkyard Mail. …
J.E. Place writes: Why is UGA playing at Auburn two years in a row?
The game hasn’t been played at the same site in consecutive years since it was held in Columbus 1930-1958, but thanks to the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC and no firm decision yet on how to handle cross-divisional rivalries, the conference has spent last year and this season vamping with stand-alone schedules. And this season Georgia and Auburn’s insistence on meeting every year meant that the Dogs had to head to Auburn for the second straight year. Hopefully they’ll get back on track next season.
Steve writes: You stated “Lack of speed in keeping outside containment is still a bit worrying.” I’ve never heard about a speed concern. Could you give more detail? Is this with the OLB’s, ILB’s, safeties, corners? I have heard TV announcers often criticizing Leonard Floyd a lot about “not setting the edge”. I’ve also seen our OLBs not being physical enough, where opponents’ small wide receivers are blocking our OLBs (really just fronting them). I wouldn’t say speed, but our ILBs just seem to be “slow” in reacting to plays. Against Auburn’s spread, if we don’t do well on off-tackle and sweeps, its gonna be a long day.
I’m not talking foot speed so much as speed in reacting. Georgia’s young defense has played tentatively at times this season and has tended to get burned by misdirection. And, unfortunately, we don’t have a superhuman presence like Alec Ogletree this year who can zip from one side of the field to the other in time to stop big gains on the perimeter.
The Shevlins write: Are the officials under pressure from league offices to flag targeting? It seems to be the penalty d’jour. Obviously the complaints are attributable to the newness of the rule and the inability to overturn the 15 yards. We have always argued over the subjectivity of penalties. Nobody complained about “letting them play” in the LSU game when it came to pass interference.
I think they have been under a certain pressure to call the targeting penalty, and the rule itself tends to do that the way it’s written, since it says that if the officials aren’t sure whether it was targeting, they should throw the flag any way. The rule is a complete mess that hopefully will be addressed in the offseason.
Jim P. writes: Bill, I’ve noticed something that was very apparent against Appalachian State. Even the announcers on WSB-TV mentioned it became so obvious after an App State pass completion, between 3 Bulldog defenders. Due to the targeting rule (which affected them again Saturday), Georgia defenders are being apprehensive about how they hit and tackle receivers. This is slowing them down and forcing them to think instead of allowing their natural, football instincts. I believe this is causing a part in some of the failures and confusion of the defense this year. It is almost impossible to coach a correct hit for every possible scenario of body twists in a split second without being hesitant. And that hesitancy can be the difference that costs a first down, score, or penalty I, unfortunately, do not believe tackling will get better until changes are made to the rule.
I think you’re on the money with that observation, Jim, and Coach Richt talked about that some earlier in the season. Players like Corey Moore who’ve been flagged for targeting may say that they’re not going to let it affect how they play the game, but I think it’s only natural that there’s going to be a split second of indecision on their part. And, like you noted, I’m not sure there’s much coaches can do about that.
Martha Shepherd writes: This is a hard question to ask but Scott Howard … reminds me of Al Ciraldo of Georgia Tech years ago. Al was not very good at giving you a current picture of the events on the field. It was almost as if the play was over before he would start to describe the good details, like, what yard line is the guy end on? Which he never did. Scott has every thing you need (I know there is only one Larry Munson) BUT he says way too much when he ought to be telling you what is happening at the time the play is unfolding, not a minute (which can be an eternity) down the road. Larry was brilliant at this. You could “see” the play while it is happening. Somebody should put a bug in Scott’s ear.
Because I’m either at the game or watching on television, I generally only hear Scott’s highlights — the scoring plays — after the fact, so I don’t have that good a feel for how well he’s been doing lately setting up the plays. But I do know that not many announcers are as great as Munson was at creating an aural picture of the game, and perhaps that’s because younger announcers have come up in the age of television as opposed to Munson’s generation, which was raised on radio.
Steve Yearta writes: Dear Bill, I’ve come to accept the inevitabilities of life: death, taxes, and the fact that Georgia will be a good team under Mark Richt but never challenge Alabama for SEC supremacy as long as Nick Saban is coaching in Tuscaloosa. The 2013 season has been par for the Richt course: some good to great wins (South Carolina, LSU and Florida) but the usual egg laid (Vanderbilt). Of the other losses, Mizzou was just better than Georgia and but for special teams miscues Clemson was a winnable game. You wrote recently that this Georgia season isn’t the kind that gets a coach fired, and that is precisely coach Richt’s recipe for longevity: have enough success that your AD will look like a fool if he fires you and the football program tanks for the next 5 years. I don’t want to go through the ordeal Tennessee has endured since Phil Fulmer’s firing, so I’ve tossed back the Kool-Aid and realize things could be worse.
Not an unfair summation, Steve, but I still believe Richt will have that breakthrough year. I guess that’s the essence of being a college football fan, though, isn’t it?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg