War Eagle, everybody! We’re back in the saddle here at the newly revamped TrackEmTigers.com. After a two week hiatus, it’s great to be back to previewing Auburn’s upcoming football opponents. Given how close it is to kickoff, I’m going to skip two of Auburn’s remaining four opponents: New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. If either of those teams seriously challenge the Tigers, it’s likely to have been a very rough year. You could see lackluster scores in either or both games, like Samford last year. It’ll be because the coaches are tuning up for Georgia and Bama, and are resting key players.
On November 10th, the Bulldogs travel to Auburn, likely to try and clinch a second SEC East title in a row. The schedule is very favorable at this point in the year for both teams. Auburn starts the season in tough fashion, with Clemson in Atlanta, MSU in Starkville, ULM, LSU, open date, Arkansas, at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M. Then the Tigers dial it back for homecoming against New Mexico State, then the Georgia game. Hopefully, the Tigers will bring an experienced, rejuvenated unit into the Bulldog game.
The Bulldogs have schedule that should enable them to do well. Having played a pretty tough non-conference schedule the past decade, this year the Bulldogs feast on Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, and Georgia Southern. The Bulldogs open vs. Buffalo, then travel to Missouri in game two, which might be a tough time to be breaking in a new offensive line and relatively inexperienced running backs. Not only that, the Bulldogs have several early-season multi-game suspensions awaiting some key players. Make it past the new Tigers, and Georgia hosts Florida Atlantic, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee. Then the battle for the SEC East goes down in Columbia with South Carolina. Georgia has a week off to recover, then travels to Kentucky, then has the Cocktail party in Jacksonville against Florida. The Bulldogs tune up on Ole Miss afterwords, then head to Auburn. Even with questions on offense, There’s really only two huge games on that schedule: Mizzou and USC. Georgia’s last two games against Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech are pretty much irrelevant, except for bowl positioning and possible BCS implications, if UGA is still in the picture.
Every year since Knowshon Moreno left for the NFL, it’s been a question who’ll carry the football for the Bulldogs on offense, and this year is no exception. In addition, the Bulldogs have questions on the offensive line for the first time in years. And Georgia must recover from the loss of Orson Charles at tight end, the last in a long line of gigantic, fast, sticky fingered targets in the middle of the field. Georgia does have arguably one of the top quarterbacks in the league returning, Aaron Murray. The Bulldogs also field a very underrated, dangerous wide receiver corps.
While the Bulldog offense may struggle at times, Georgia returns a pretty good defense. This unit returns most of the pieces from a unit that only gave up 277 yards per game last season, and 20.6 points per game. The Bulldogs only gave up 3.2 yards per rush, forced 32 fumbles, and picked off 20 passes. The key players in the defense are senior nose guard John Jenkins and ball-hawing linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree. What wasn’t noted by most analysts was that Georgia had an excellent secondary last season on par with Alabama and LSU, and they return corners Sanders Commings, Branden Smith and Malcomb Mitchell, as well as veteran safety Bacarri Rambo, who I think must be in his tenth season! Well, it sure seems like it, at least!
Special Teams will be big question mark for the Bulldogs. Last year’s coverage was spotty on both units, and Georgia loses all-World kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler, as well as do-it-all return man Brandon Boykin. Georgia is a bit down on scholarship numbers this year, and that may affect the quality of the special teams as well. Expect to see new legs for the Bulldogs, and it’s anyone’s guess how that will go. Likely return mainstays will be senior corner Branden Smith and sophomore weapon Malcomb Mitchell.
Auburn defensive line vs. Georgia offensive line: front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. Auburn’s had a tendency in recent years to get massacred up front by the Georgia offensive line, but this year may be different. After losing Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson from last year’s starting unit, the Bulldogs are looking to rebuild. Sophomore David Andrews takes over at center, and juniors Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee will start at the guard slots. Burnette has played a good bit of SEC football. Junior Kenarious Gates moves out to left tackle, and should be OK. Sophomore Watts Dantzler came out of spring camp as the starters, but news from fall camp has true freshman John Theus running with the first team. Auburn’s experience and depth should trump Georgia’s new unit. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Georgia backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. Holland and Evans have been getting rave reviews in fall camp. Georgia’s been one of the few teams in the SEC to consistently use bruising true fullbacks over the past few years, and this year is no exception. Senior Richard Samuel has the brawn and experience to do well there, but he’s likely going to be taking some snaps at tailback. The offensive surprise of spring camp was the play of sophomore Merritt Hall, who was at the top of the depth chart at the end. Tailback duties will likely fall to several players, junior Ken Malcome and true freshman Keith Marshall, and Samuel. None of Georgia’s backs did very well against the starting defense in the spring game. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Georgia receivers: This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there’s fast, talented guys two deep behind them. Georgia senior Tavarres King led all Bulldog receivers with 47 catches a year ago, and sophomore Michael Bennett and senior Marlon Brown are difficult to stop as well. Cornerback Malcomb Mitchell played some receiver last year, and caught 45 balls, and he may well again later in the year, when there will be less of a heat toll playing both ways. Auburn should have enough depth to match up even if the Bulldogs try to spread things out. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Georgia secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Georgia right now plans to alternate senior Arthur Lynch and redshirt freshman Jay Rome at tight end. Lynch is a big body, trying to work on his receiving skills. Neither guy caught a pass last season. Fullback Richard Samuel caught 5 balls a year ago. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent’s 20.
For Georgia, redshirt freshman Adam Erickson is penciled in as the starting punter. Senior Branden Smith should be the starting return man. He averaged 7.8 yards per return last year, on 9 returns. Georgia gave up 14.9 yards per return last season, with two scores. Auburn’s Quan Bray averaged 7.4 yards per return on 13 returns. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. This year, with the rule changes on kickoffs, expect Auburn to instead try a lot of sky-kicks to the 5 or 10 yard line, and try to smother returners short of the 25 yard line with decent coverage unit that averaged 22.1 yards per return last season. Georgia is set to use Junior Jamie Lindley to kick off in 2012, and he’s rumored to have a pretty strong leg. Georgia’s coverage unit last year gave up 23.0 yards per return. Georgia’s likely to use Branden Smith on kick returns, after his 18.7 yard average last season. Auburn utilized several return guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. Auburn gave up 22.1 yards per return, and the Aggies gave up 20.3. With a veteran kicker and more return options, it’s Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, with a few key misses. Georgia will go with inexperienced junior Jamie Lindley. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Georgia defensive line: Auburn’s starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. Sullen’s been slowed early in Auburn’s camp, and the name that’s gotten the most mention in fall camp is true freshman Alex Kozan. With sophomore guard-tackle Eric Mack out for the season, Auburn will have a decidedly young offensive line in 2012. Tiger fans would like to see things a lot more settled here, this close to the first game of the year. Georgia loses Deangelo Tyson off last year’s defensive line, but he was arguably the least productive starter. Senior nose guard John Jenkins is a 350-pound monster with quick feet. Senior Abry Jones is a stout 309-pound run stopper at one end. Replacing Tyson will likely be senior Cornelius Washington, a former linebacker. From all accounts, Washington will be a more than able replacement. Georgia likes to move various linebackers up to another rush-end spot, most notably Jarvis Jones. The Bulldog D-line is a fearsome mass of muscle, and Auburn had very little success blocking them last season. While this year’s Auburn line will be more talented than last year’s, it’s still a tough matchup. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn backs vs. Georgia linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the “between the tackles” back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. Georgia returns 3 starters from last year’s shut-down of Auburn, seniors Jarvis Jones and Michael Gilliard and junior Alec Ogletree. Veteran senior Chase Vasser seems to have nailed down the 4th spot. Auburn managed a grand total of 51 rushing yards against Georgia last season. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn receivers vs. Georgia corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. Younger players Sammie Coates and Jaylon Denson have had good fall camps thus far, and Auburn should have no dearth of weapons. Georgia seniors Branden Smith and Sanders Commings, along with sophomore Malcomb Mitchell give Georgia a top-notch pass coverage unit. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Georgia safeties: The Auburn quarterback is likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Georgia returns starting senior safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams, both of whom have good size and speed, and are experienced. Advantage: Georgia.
Until the SEC Title game last fall, no one had much success trying to pound the ball at Georgia. Where the Bulldogs gave up points were on turnovers, or special teams. Offensive success against them tended to be precision passing. With Auburn’s young line and quarterback situation, it’s not a good matchup up against a tough defense. The Tigers will have to be careful not to go into melt-down mode like they did last year in Athens. If Auburn can play great defense and limit Aaron Murray, a punting duel could favor the Tigers. Still, historically the road team plays better in this series.
Prediction: Tiger big plays keep it close, but Georgia is too strong on defense. Auburn falls at home, 22-16.