War Eagle, everybody! Time now for another Auburn football opponent preview. This week, we’ll take a look at the 2009 Georgia Bulldogs. On November 14th, Auburn will travel to Athens, Georgia, to play the Bulldogs. For many years, Auburn and Georgia usually played at “neutral” sites such as Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Montgomery, and Savannah. Trips to Athens were infrequent, happening only 4 times prior to 1959, in 1912, 1915, 1929, and 1949. Georgia did not visit Auburn till 1960. Since 1959, the teams have played alternating home and home games. Auburn’s all-time record in Athens is 18 wins, 10 losses, and a tie.
Both teams will come into this game after facing FCS teams. Auburn will have faced the Furman Paladins, and Georgia will have faced Tennessee Tech. Georgia’s schedule opens with a bang, with the high-powered Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater. Sprinkled in are a few tough road trips, to Fayetteville, Knoxville, and Jacksonville, where we’re not supposed to mention cocktails, anymore, and Atlanta! Georgia does get South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU, Auburn and Kentucky at home. The Bulldogs are playing 3 out of conference BCS teams, in case you haven’t noticed. I applaud the Bulldog schedule!
With the loss of NFL talents Mohammed Massaquoi, Matthew Stafford, and Knowshon Moreno, there are questions about the Bulldogs’ offensive skill players. The Bulldogs, in addition, lose their starting tight end and fullback; Tripp Chandler and Brannan Southerland. There is little question that Georgia will have one of the best offensive lines in the league. The past two seasons, the Bulldogs have been decimated by injury up front, and had to play young replacement players. The result is a 2009 depth chart stacked with offensive line experience. The star of the returning skill players is freshman All-American flanker A. J. Green. 5th year senior Joe Cox will take the helm at quarterback, with lots of experience in the program, but only one start. Tailback will likely be by committee.
Hoping to shore up a sometimes leaky defense, head coach Mark Richt has promoted linebackers coach John Jancek to co-defensive coordinator, to supplement coordinator Willie Martinez. In addition, the Bulldogs have been more physical in their practices, than last season. Richt had backed off the contact last season due to lots of injuries, and he felt like the move hurt tackling. Georgia loses some defensive firepower, as well, including two starting linemen, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and corner Asher Allen. The Bulldogs should have enough talent on hand to plug those holes, though. Beast of a tackle, senior Geno Atkins will anchor the line, and Rennie Curran is one of the best linebackers in the country. Prince Miller returns at corner, and Rashad Jones is a ball-hawking safety. Other than tackling, what the Bulldog defense has worked the most on, is the pass rush. The Bulldogs have numbers at both the tackle and end spots, but had a rash of injuries to try and heal over the summer. Who’ll be starting by game 11 this year, is anyone’s guess.
Bulldog special teams are headlined by sophomore placekicker Blair Walsh, and junior punt returner Prince Miller. The Bulldogs must replace punter Brian Mimbs, and kick returner Ramarcus Brown. Sophomore Drew Butler will replace Mimbs, and candidates to replace Brown are sophomores Brandon Boykin and Richard Samuel, and redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas. The Bulldogs were pretty good returning punts, but fairly average on kick returns, last season. One particular concern was kickoffs, where Walsh kicked 8 balls out of bounds on the season. Sophomore JUCO transfer Brandon Bogotay may handle kickoffs, this season.
Auburn defensive line vs. UGA offensive line: Auburn returns a veteran front, but it’s a group that struggled somewhat against the Bulldog line last season. Auburn’s line managed 12 total tackles, and 3 tackles for loss. While some would point to the fact that Auburn held Georgia to 17 points last season, the reality is that the Bulldogs moved the ball at will for most of the game, and repeatedly doomed drives with penalties. The Bulldog line held departed Auburn tackle SenDerrick Marks without a single stat. This season for the Bulldogs, left tackle should be anchored by returning All-SEC junior Clint Boling. Huge sophomore Tanner Strickland is currently ahead at left guard, and sophomore Justin Anderson has moved inside to right guard, after starting last season at right tackle as a true freshman. Sophomore Cordy Glenn moves his 330 pounds to right tackle, this year. Sophomore Ben Jones, a freshman All-American last season, returns at center. This huge Bulldog line averages 315 pounds per man. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn linebackers vs. UGA runners: As of this writing, Auburn has just 4 scholarship linebackers in fall camp. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are veterans, and incoming JUCO transfer Eltoro Freeman may be a rising star, but it’s a thin group that can’t afford any injuries! Georgia will likely use multiple tailbacks, including sophomores Caleb King and Richard Samuel. Redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas can fly, but he’s small, at 5′ 7″ and 178 pounds. The Bulldogs will start junior Shaun Chapas at fullback, this season. Chapas has size at 238 pounds, and starting experience, when the departed Brannan Southernland was hurt last year. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn corners vs. UGA receivers: Auburn’s starting corners Walter McFadden and Neiko Thorpe should be very solid this fall. Both have continued to win praise in fall camp. As is elsewhere with the Tigers, depth is a problem. Converted receiver Harry Adams is currently the 3rd corner. Georgia’s star receiver returning is sophomore A. J. Green, a towering target with sprinter speed. On the other side, Georgia is still searching for answers. Senior Michael Moore has had his moments, including 6 catches in the Capital One Bowl last January. Also possibilities include redshirt freshman Tavarres King, junior Marquise Brown and sophomore Israel Troop. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. UGA secondary receivers and quarterback: By all accounts, junior Auburn strong safety Zach Etheridge is back healthy after off-season surgery, and is making plays in fall camp. Free safety Mike McNeil’s rehab from a broken leg last spring is still ongoing. That leaves either Mike Slade or Drew Cole starting at free safety. Behind those two, Auburn has moved a pair of corners to safety, Tasharvan Bell, and D’Antoine Hood. Hood promptly ended up on the sideline due to injury. While Georgia does have some talented wide receivers they can move into the slot, there will be some less-familiar faces out there for the Bulldogs, this season. The front runner at tight end is sophomore Aron White, who according to the Bulldog media guide, is only 227 pounds. White caught 3 balls for 88 yards, last season. Behind White is 260 pound junior Bruce Figgins. At fullback, junior Shaun Chapas caught 9 balls for 120 yards and a touchdown. At quarterback, the Bulldogs will start 5th year senior Joe Cox. While Cox has limited starting experience, and nowhere near the arm strength of the departed Matthew Stafford, Cox has been widely praised this summer for his accuracy, cool-headedness, and leadership. Advantage: Georgia.
Punting: Clinton Durst averaged 42.1 yards per punt for Auburn last year, in his first season. Georgia goes with a new punter, sophomore Drew Butler. Georgia attempted to use Butler as a coffin-corner specialist, last season. Butler hit 3 punts for 35.7 yard average, with 2 touch backs, and one pinned inside the 20. Butler did average 40 yards per punt in high school, but in this year’s G-Day game, he again averaged about 35 yards per punt. While Auburn is still trying to find a punt returner, Georgia returns junior Prince Miller. Miller averaged a whopping 21.2 yards per return, on a Georgia unit that utilized multiple returners. The Bulldogs averaged 17.6 yards per punt return, as a team. Still, in last year’s Auburn game, Miller had only one return, a disastrous fumble that set up an Auburn touchdown. Durst did a fine job of kicking away from Bulldog returners, while still managing a 45-yard average. Last season, Auburn gave up 7.0 yards per return, Georgia gave up 7.1. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Both teams look to improve in this area, this year. Auburn’s Wes Byrum averaged about 67 yards per kickoff during the spring, and appeared very consistent during the A-Day game. Georgia’s last-season struggles are already documented above, and they didn’t kick off in the G-day game. Auburn junior Mario Fannin is the most experienced kick return man, averaging 22.5 yards per return. Georgia will utilize new return men, this fall, trying to better last season’s 21.2 yard average. Auburn gave up 21.5 yards per return in 2008, Georgia gave up 21.7. Advantage: Auburn.
Placekicking: Wes Byrum returns for his third year for Auburn, having hit 27 of his 42 career attempts. Byrum had something a sophomore slump last season, hitting only 11 of 19. All indications are that Byrum is kicking it much better, this year. Georgia returns sophomore placekicker Blair Walsh, who was 15-23 as a true freshman. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. UGA defensive line: Auburn will field a strong group of offensive line starters, but current word is that we have not even one backup that can play at an SEC level. Georgia’s defensive line will be tough, featuring 290 pound senior tackle Geno Atkins. At the other tackle spot, 5th year senior Jeff Owens returns after blowing out a knee in the first game of 2008. There is depth, too, as sophomore DeAngelo Tyson was an All-SEC freshman selection. At end, senior Roderick Battle returns, with 20 starts, and sophomore Justin Houston led the team in sacks with 2.5. There are other options, such as junior Kiante Tripp, who played some on the offensive line. While the Bulldogs were strong against the run, they often did not get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and are looking to improve. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. UGA linebackers: With the exception of a couple of break-away plays by Mario Fannin, Georgia’s linebackers handled Auburn fairly well, last season. Auburn’s backs look to be more dangerous, this season, with Mario Fannin moved to H-back, and the emergence of newcomers like Onterrio McCaleb and Eric Smith, behind Ben Tate. All-SEC junior linebacker Rennie Curran returns to anchor the Bulldog linebacking corps this year. Junior Darryl Gamble had 60 tackles a year ago, mostly as a reserve. Junior Akeem Dent will start again, in the middle. There is plenty of depth behind those three starters, too. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. UGA corners: Auburn’s wide receiver situation remains fluid. Leader Tim Hawthorne is still trying to recover from injury, and is currently the Juggs machine operator at practice. Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor recently said that the front runners right now are sophomore Darvin Adams, and junior Terrell Zachary; a pair which caught a total of 5 balls, last season. Senior Montez Billings has looked good in practice, and brings a lot of experience to the table, but he may be sidelined with a mysterious “academic issue.” Incoming freshmen DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake have been written about frequently by the press, but the Auburn coaches have been much more guarded with their praise. With the early loss of Asher Allen to the NFL, the Bulldogs have questions at cornerback. Junior Prince Miller returns at one cornerback slot. Miller proved to be capable, if not spectacular, last season, with 2 pass breakups, and no interceptions. Sophomore Brandon Boykin has been tapped on the other side. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two starting corners who had no interceptions last season. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. UGA safeties: Auburn should have some options at the inside receiver positions, with 5th year senior tight end Tommy Trott, and junior Mario Fannin in the slot. Here in mid-August, we still have no idea who the Auburn starting quarterback will be. Kodi Burns started against Georgia last season, and picked up 56 rushing yards with one sack, and hit 16 of 30 passes for 179 yards with no interceptions. Burns also led two potential go-ahead drives into the Georgia red zone at the end, and couldn’t get his passes to the open Auburn receivers for the score. For Georgia at safety, gone is free safety C. J. Byrd, but junior All-SEC Reshad Jones returns at strong safety. Jones was second on the team in tackles, and led the team with 5 interceptions. The starter at free safety this year will be senior converted corner Bryan Evans, who had three pass breakups, last season. Advantage: Georgia.
As has been the case for the past four seasons, Auburn will have its hands full trying to stop the Georgia offense. The Bulldogs’ worst enemy has been themselves, with untimely penalties and turnovers. Georgia should be powerful enough up front, and it will be up to Joe Cox and the young runners and receivers to produce. Offensively, Auburn has a chance to exploit some folks in Georgia’s secondary, but until we see a solid situation at quarterback, it’s hard to see Auburn doing what it must to beat the Bulldogs, namely, sustain scoring drives and keep the Bulldog offense on the sideline.
Prediction: The Athens curse threatens to rear its head again, thanks to Bulldog mistakes on offense and the kicking game. Still, Georgia is too powerful on both lines of scrimmage, and Auburn falls, 37-27.