War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for a preview of the Auburn-Georgia game, which will be played in Auburn on November 13th. It’s the 11th game of the season for the Tigers, who will be coming off a homecoming game against Tennessee-Chattanooga. Georgia opens the season with Louisiana-Lafayette, then faces what may be the most brutal stretch of games in the SEC. The Bulldogs have South Carolina on the road, host Arkansas, have Mississippi State on the road, Colorado on the road, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky on the road, and Florida in Jacksonville before homecoming against Idaho State the week before the Auburn game. Like the Tigers, Georgia doesn’t get a break till the week before Thanksgiving. By mid-November, the stifling summer of 2010 should be finally over, and this game will likely feature gray skies and a nip in the air.
This is the space where writers usually marvel at how Auburn and Georgia both win more often on the road against one another. I’ll not go through that again, because lately it seems that Georgia wins all of the time. Auburn hasn’t beaten Georgia in Jordan Hare Stadium since 2004. And since that time, the Auburn defense has given up 160 points in five games to the Bulldogs, an average of 32 points per game. It used to be Steve Spurrier’s Florida squads doing that sort of damage! It needs to stop, and it needs to stop THIS YEAR!
After a dissatisfying five-loss season, change is the watchword at Georgia. Head coach Mark Richt fired most of his defensive staff, and brought in Todd Grantham to install a 3-4 scheme. It’s an interesting move, and one that might not pay immediate dividends. Georgia lacks a mammoth nose guard that many 3-4 teams prefer. That defense relies on strong linemen occupying more than one blocker, and freeing linebackers to attack and chase. Georgia’s front three guys average 288 pounds, which is adequate, but hardly super-sized. In addition, there are now four linebacker slots to fill on a unit that lost leading tackler Rennie Curran to graduation. The most experienced returning Bulldog linebacker is senior Akeem Dent, and Dent will miss fall camp after toe surgery. Based on what we saw of Grantham’s schemes the past few years in the NFL, he’ll put a premium on safeties over top, and Georgia will much less vulnerable to deep passes down the middle. On the other hand, corners will frequently be in man coverage, and Georgia replaces three starters in the secondary this year. I’d imagine that the development of the new D will be interesting to watch over the first ten games. The Bulldogs will likely be much improved by the 11th game of the season.
Georgia returns the vast majority of an offense that finished 7th in the league in scoring offense, and 8th in total offense. The Bulldogs have to replace only quarterback Joe Cox, and receiver Michael Moore. The Bulldogs have a very experienced offensive line, an explosive backfield, and perhaps the SEC’s best receiver in junior A. J. Green. The only real question is a new quarterback, redshirt freshman Aaron Murry. After completing just 10 of 22 passes in the G-Day game, many had Murry tapped to be third team. Instead, he’ll be the starter this season, and two true freshmen will back him up. Junior Logan Gray moved to wide receiver for fall camp, but I’d expect Gray to move back to quarterback if Murry struggles badly or is injured.
Georgia returns perhaps the best kicking tandem in the nation in junior punterDrew Butler and junior kicker Blair Walsh. Blair was a Groza finalist and Butler won the Ray Guy award as the nation’s best punter. Butler’s 2009 performance is a reminder that past statistics don’t always indicate what will happen in the future. Butler was a career 35-yard average guy, till he boomed the lights out last season with a tremendous 48.1 yard mark. Georgia is set on kick returns with junior Brandon Boykin, who returned three kicks for TDs last season. The Dawgs have yet to name a replacement for departed punt returner Prince Miller. Georgia coverage was shaky last season, and may be again.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Georgia offensive line: Auburn should field a solid unit similar to a year ago among the starters, with significantly more depth. Last season against Georgia, tackle Mike Blanc had a phenomenal first quarter, spending much of it in the Bulldog backfield causing chaos. After the first period, the Tigers were manhandled by the Georgia line. Georgia returns all five starters from a year ago, and that group boasts a total of 127 career starts. Senior all-SEC left tackle Clint Boling leads this group, and his counterpart at the other tackle is senior Josh Davis. Junior Cordy Glenn and senior Chris Davis hold the guard spots, and junior Ben Jones returns for his third year as the starting Bulldog center. In addition, juniorTrinton Sturdivant returns after two knee surgeries for added depth. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn linebackers vs. Georgia backs: Auburn will rely on the senior experience of Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, with help from sophomores Darren Bates (moved from free safety) and Jonathan Evans. Last year, Georgia ran the ball against Auburn 38 times for 169 yards, and the duo of Bynes and Stevens made only 11 total tackles. That suggests that Georgia blockers really took care of the Auburn backers. Georgia returns an explosive pair of runners in junior Caleb King and sophomoreWashaun Ealey. Ealey led the Bulldogs with 717 yards in 2009. Georgia also returns a pair of sound senior fullbacks in Shaun Chapas and Fred Munzenmaier. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn corners vs. Georgia receivers: Auburn returns veteran corners Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington, as well as backup T’Sharvan Bell. Auburn did a pretty fair job limiting outside receivers in last year’s matchup, but got torched at times on combo routes to the slot receivers. In Auburn’s defense, they had neither a solid third linebacker or nickelback for this game. A. J. Green was held to 19 yards on three catches. Green returns for his junior season, and will be a dangerous challenge to whomever draws that assignment. Sophomore Tavarrez King is the top returning receiver besides Green. Georgia has depth and talent behind the starters, including junior Israel Troupe and senior Chris Durham. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Georgia secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn looks to be going with the senior tandem of Aaron Savage and Mike McNeil as starters this fall, and Zach Etheridge may play a big role also. There are a LOT of starting snaps and big plays among that bunch. Georgia uses outside receivers in the slot often, and as noted above, there are some options. The fullbacks caught 12 balls for the Bulldogs, and tight end Orson Charles added 23 more in 2009. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo does a good job spreading the ball around to all eligible receivers on the field. The Georgia quarterback situation is a huge question mark. While many might write off an all freshman cast, it’s important to note that coach Mark Richt has had success in the past with newcomers. See David Green andMatthew Stafford… If the Bulldogs stick with Aaron Murray, he will have had ten games of starting experience by the time this matchup occurs. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn’s probable starter at punter is senior Ryan Shoemaker, who was a freshman All-SEC in 2007. Shoemaker sports a career 41.5 yard average, but he’s being pushed in fall camp by incoming freshman Steven Clark. Georgia returns junior Drew Butler, who’s coming off a monster year. Both teams are searching for a return man. Georgia’s coverage was spotty, giving up 10.5 yards per punt return. Auburn’s was worse, being gashed for 12.9. Until the team shows me that it’s stopped dropping punts on the ground, it’s Advantage: Georgia.
Kickoffs: Auburn senior Wes Byrum will likely manage the kickoff duties in 2010, having posted a career 62.4 yard average on 83 kickoffs. Junior Blair Walsh had a 63.9 yard kickoff average, but managed 17 touchbacks, a very good number. Both teams are fairly set on returns. For Auburn, Mario Fannin (21.2 yards per return) and Onterrio McCalebb (24.7) had success last season, and Demond Washington (31.1 yards) was a late addition who took one to the house against Georgia. Georgia returns junior Brandon Boykin, who had a 26.0 yard average, and an SEC record three touchdowns. Both teams had suspect coverage a year ago. Auburn gave up 23.5 yards per return, and Georgia gave up 25.7. Advantage: Even.
Place kicking: Auburn returns senior Wes Byrum, who’s coming off a near-perfect year, hitting 14 of 15 field goals and all of his extra points. Georgia junior Blair Walsh hit 20 of 22 field goal attempts, and was perfect on extra points. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. Georgia defensive line: In a unit many expected to be the tightest on the team, we’re seeing some cracks lately. Auburn has some fearsome linemen up front, and a lot of starts over the past four years. Seniors Lee Ziemba, Byron Issom, Mike Pugh and Mike Berry are all all-star candidates, but it seems the coaches have turned the right tackle position into a four man race. The rotation may be taking a toll, as we regularly hear complaints from the coaches that Auburn needs to do better running the ball in scrimmages. Coupled with a lackluster running game on A-Day, it’s starting to be worrisome. Auburn matched up fairly well against Georgia last season, and actually outgained the Bulldogs in the contest. Where Auburn lost was by committing nine penalties and two interceptions. Georgia will go this season with a three man line featuring juniorDeAngelo Tyson at nose, sophomore Abry Jones at one end, and senior Demarcus Dobbs on the other side. There is some depth including experienced senior Kiante Tripp, but Georgia could use more beef on a three-man line. Junior offensive lineman Justin Anderson (330 pounds) was moved to nose guard for exactly that reason. As with many 3-4 defenses, one linebacker may move up and put a hand down like a rush end. Look for 255 pound sophomore Cornelius Washington, a former end to take that job. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Georgia linebackers: Auburn has a solid three-deep running back corps of Mario Fannin, along with Onterrio McCalebb and incoming sensationMichael Dyer. The H-back depth chart looks like Eric Smith and freshman behemoth LaDarius Phillips will lead the way. Georgia presents a new look at linebacker with some young faces thrust into a prominent role. Georgia will use junior Justin Houston, sophomore Cornelius Washington, senior Akeem Dent and sophomore Christian Robinson as starters. If Dent still isn’t full speed after toe surgery this summer, the Bulldogs will likely put senior Darryl Gamble in his place. It’s a pretty young crew, especially well into the 8 man rotation. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Georgia corners: The deepest position on Auburn’s 2010 squad appears to be at receiver, led by star junior Darvin Adams. Adams had a solid game against Georgia in 2009 with 6 catches for 90 yards, but on the other sideTerrell Zachary disappeared after a 31 yard TD catch in the first quarter. Georgia kept it in front most of the game, knowing that Auburn would self-destruct with a penalty sooner or later. Junior corner Brandon Boykin returns for the Bulldogs, but they must replace the departed Prince Miller. The current leader for the other starting corner position is senior Vance Cuff. Cuff has played in 31 career games, and has 31 tackles, 2 pass breakups and no interceptions. Boykin had 40 tackles, no interceptions and 6 pass breakups in 2009. It will be interesting to see how much corner technique tightens up at Georgia this season. Coverage has been the defense’s weak spot in recent years. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Georgia safeties: Auburn should have a number of talented secondary receivers, including sophomore tight end Phillip Lutzenchirchen. The Tigers often line up outside receivers in the slot, and throw a lot of passes to backs out of the backfield. There are at least a half-dozen such candidates who can break a screen pass the distance. In addition, quarterback Cameron Newton has a strong arm, and is a threat as a runner. Despite losing both starters, Georgia has some safeties that have experience. Starting will be sophomore Bacarri Rambo and junior Nick Williams. Rambo was an impressive pass defender off the bench in 2009, contributing two interceptions and five pass breakups last season. Rambo was in on a game-saving hit at the end of the Auburn Georgia game last year, knocking a deep post pass to Mario Fannin loose at the goal line. Rambo left with a scary concussion on that play. Advantage: Auburn.
It’s a tall order to ask a freshman quarterback to win an SEC road game at Auburn. Georgia did it in 2006 with Matthew Stafford, but a lot of that game had to do with an absolute melt-down by the Auburn offense that spotted Georgia 23 points in the second quarter. I think Auburn will double cover A. J. Green again, and try to utilize various blitzes to disrupt the Georgia running game and force some 2nd and 3rd and longs. Auburn cannot allow King and Ealey to run wild, and the Tiger defense will try to put the game in the hands of Aaron Murray.
A new defensive scheme is a learning process all season long, especially when it’s a radical departure from the old. Against Auburn, Georgia may struggle, especially if they try to go too blitz-crazy. Auburn has a lot of ways to get big plays when defenders get too far upfield. Georgia may try to be patient on defense. Auburn fans hope the Tiger offense is less mistake-prone and more consistent. If Auburn can avoid beating themselves on offense, they should win this game.
Prediction: Auburn breaks the four game losing streak to Georgia behind a relentless veteran offense. Georgia’s new quarterback has a rough outing at Jordan Hare Stadium, and Auburn wins 31-17.