By Acid Reign
Editor’s Note: All summer Acid Reign has been previewing each of Auburn’s opponents for the 2008 season. Today in the 11th installment, he looks at Auburn vs. Georgia.
The matchup at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 15th will not be for the faint of heart. Two of the SEC’s best teams will tee it up, with championship berths on the line on both sides. If this game is not the CBS game of the week, then the year will have already gone down as a huge disappointment for one or both teams. LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas are off that Saturday. The most compelling matchups other than Auburn-Georgia are Mississippi State at Alabama, and South Carolina at Florida.
Auburn should come into this game as the front-runner in the SEC West. Georgia may be fighting for its life in the Eastern Division, as the 2008 road slate for the Bulldogs will have already included South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU, Florida, and Kentucky. In all likelihood, the Bulldogs will drop one of those games, and will need to win at Auburn to secure a trip to Atlanta and the SEC title game. Both teams will have a tune-up game of sorts, the week before this matchup. Auburn will be coming off homecoming with the UT Martin Skyhawks, and Georgia will be following a trip to Lexington against a Kentucky Wildcat team sporting a lot of new faces, this season.
This season Georgia must overcome the mantle of high expectations, having finished second in the nation, and returning 16 starters on a deep and talented team. Additionally, the Bulldogs will have to recover from an off-season of misbehavior and arrests. 7 Bulldogs have been arrested since the end of last season, and at least one player is permanently gone. A few more face at least 2-game suspensions. Fortunately, the Bulldogs open with Georgia Southern, and Central Michigan at home.
Georgia appears loaded, this year, on defense. While Willie Martinez has had a history of graduating defensive backs to the NFL, late last season, he came into his own as a defensive coordinator. Down the stretch, Georgia shut down its opponents in the second half. The Georgia defense is studded with pre-season all-stars, including end Roderick Battle, Outland/Lombardi candidate tackle Geno Atkins, leading tackler All-SEC linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and speedy corner Asher Allen. Georgia’s defense was 8th in the nation last season, and looks to be even better, this year.
The Georgia offense struggled early last season, mostly with inexperience. As the season wore on, 3 freshmen linemen, and an electrifying freshman tailback came of age, and dominated some of the better SEC defenses, including Auburn’s. Mathew Stafford, thrown into the SEC fray as a freshman, has fought through two years of inconsistency, and became a prolific passer. He’s an NFL-sized junior veteran with a cannon for an arm.
Stafford can make ALL of the throws, including bullet shots over the middle, lofting a deep corner route over a defender, and leading screens where the receiver catches the ball in full stride. In addition, Stafford can run, and has done well with the read-option. If there is a weakness on the Bulldog offense, it might be at wide receiver. While Georgia has at least a half dozen very fast, tall, athletic receivers; at times they’ve been plagued by “the drops.”
On special teams, Georgia returns good coverage units, a strong-legged senior punter in Brian Mimbs, and a potential star return man in junior Asher Allen. The Bulldogs are still trying to find a kicker. There was good competition this past spring among incumbent players, including several 45-yard plus field goals. Evidently, though, the consistency head coach Mark Richt wants, was lacking. There are at least four kickers still alive in the race to be the starter.
Auburn defensive line vs. UGA offensive line: This battle was largely a stalemate, last season, till midway through the 3rd quarter, then the D-line got manhandled, with the exception of Antonio Coleman. The significant loss for Georgia over the off-season was right tackle Chester Adams, to the NFL draft. Auburn loses Josh Thompson, Pat Simms, and Quentin Groves. UGA started 3 freshmen last season, two of them true freshmen, and all three made Freshmen All-American teams. There has been a bit of shuffling this year, and sophomore Chris Davis moves over to center, a position he backed up last season, while starting at left guard. Sophomores Trinton Sturdivant and Clint Boling reprise their 2007 roles, at left tackle and right guard. Rounding out the line is 320-pound junior guard Vince Vance, the veteran of the bunch, and sophomore Kiante Tripp, a converted defensive end, now at right tackle. The interior guys for Georgia will have their hands full this season, as SenDerrick Marks is as powerful as the two tackles we started last season, and is quicker. On the outside, look for Auburn to attack the right tackle Tripp, who is only listed at 270 pounds. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. UGA runners: Last season, Auburn struggled mightily trying to contain the Bulldog runners. The Groves experiment at linebacker did not work out. Tray Blackmon and Chris Evans both struggled with injuries, as did Merill Johnson. The inexperienced Bo Harris played a lot of snaps. As a result, Auburn linebackers frequently overran plays, and were victimized by cutbacks by Knowshon Moreno and Thomas Brown. This season, Brown is gone, but Moreno returns as probably the top tailback in the SEC, going in. Backing up Moreno is redshirt freshman Caleb King, a highly touted talent. Auburn should be deeper and more experienced at linebacker, this season, and should hold the UGA runners to less than last year’s 180 yards. Advantage: Even
Auburn corners vs. UGA receivers: Georgia lost their number one wideout, Sean Bailey, but they return plenty of players. Senior Mohamed Massaquoi has been in the playing rotation for years, and has break-away speed and good size. On the other side, Georgia will start senior Kenneth Harris, another tall speedster, who had a strong spring. There is plenty of depth, as well, with junior Michael Moore probably showing the most promise. Last season, the Auburn corners faired poorly against Georgia receivers. Jerraud Powers did have an interception, but none of the corners broke up a single pass in the game. Powers returns for Auburn, but the two newcomers, McFadden and Savage, will have their hands full. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn safeties vs. UGA secondary receivers and quarterback:Auburn’s Zack Etheridge and Michael McNeal have good ability, but they face a veteran, battle-hardened, talented group. Mathew Stafford will probably end the season as the highest rated QB in the SEC. Senior tight end Tripp Chandler is a 263-pound load with good hands, and 240 pound senior fullback Brannan Southerland is dangerous, as well. Auburn will have to mix coverages, and try to disguise things, to slow the Bulldogs down. Advantage: Georgia.
Punting: The punters are a virtual dead heat. Last season, both Auburn’s Ryan Shoemaker and Georgia’s Brian Mimbs averaged 42.4 yards per punt. Both coverage units were suffocating, Auburn’s allowing 6.5 yards per return, to Georgia’s 4.9. Auburn will return punts with veteran Robert Dunn, who had a 9.4 yard average last season. Georgia is unsettled at returner, but junior Asher Allen appears to be the front runner. Advantage: Auburn, on experience at the returner position.
Kickoffs: Auburn looks to improve on 2007′s 57.5 yard kickoff average, and the 21.2 yards per return given up. Georgia is still trying to find a kicker, although a number of strong-legged candidates are competing. Likely, UGA will be able to boom it deep, it’s just a matter of who will be doing it. On coverage, Georgia gave up 20.2 per return, last season. If healthy, Tristan Davis will be a weapon at kick returner for Auburn. Davis averaged 27.0 yards per return in 2006. Asher Allen will again return kicks for the Bulldogs. Allen averaged 24.6 yards per return in 2007. Advantage: Even.
Placekicking: Auburn fields a strong placekicker in sophomore Wes Byrum, and has depth in the strong-legged Morgan Hull. Georgia has not settled on a kicker, and the candidates were inconsistent during the spring. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. UGA defensive line: Against Georgia’s potent front, Auburn held their own, last season, for a two and a half quarters. From then on, the Bulldogs dominated. One concern is junior defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a 290 pound monster who is equally at home speed-rushing past centers and guards, or simply hurling them out of the way. Atkins had 41 tackles and 7.5 sacks, last season. Senior Jeff Owens is also a stout tackle, who had 27 tackles a year ago. At end, junior Roderick Battle appears poised to have a breakout year. Auburn will counter with a young, but powerful offensive line. While Auburn’s tackles held their own last season, and look to be stronger this year, Auburn could not handle Georgia inside. Tyrone Green faired decently, but it will be incumbent upon center Jason Bosley and guard Byron Issom to stop Atkins and Owens from getting a push and disrupting the entire offense. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. UGA linebackers: Auburn runners did not fare well against the Georgia defense last season. Brad Lester had 45 yards, and Ben Tate 58. Georgia fields a veteran group of athletic, sure-tackling linebackers, and Auburn could not block them or escape, for the most part. Leading the pack of rabid dogs is senior middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who led the team in tackles last season, and was All-SEC. Georgia will start sophomore Rennie Curran, a freshman All-American last year, on the weak side. On the strong side, sophomore Akeem Dent brings valuable starting experience from last year. Georgia likely has the best linebacker corps in the SEC. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn receivers vs. UGA corners: If there’s a weakness on the Georgia defense, it’s at corner. Both projected starters are short, at 5’10″ or less. Junior Asher Allen is the primary cover guy, and he is a great tackler as well, second on the team last season in tackles. Junior Prince Miller will start opposite Allen, after a great performance in the Sugar Bowl last January. The Bulldogs have good depth as well, led by junior Bryan Evans. Auburn has an improving group of receivers, led by senior Rod Smith. Georgia held Auburn’s starters, Smith and Montez Billings, to just 21 receiving yards each, last year. Auburn needs to use its taller receivers such as Chris Slaughter, to create some mismatches. Auburn will also need James Swinton to become a legitimate deep threat, to keep the Georgia corners from jumping Auburn’s short routes. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. UGA safeties: Veteran senior C.J. Byrd anchors this unit, from the strong side. He’ll be paired with sophomore Reshad Jones, a young starter a year ago. Both safeties need to tackle well, as they’ll be chasing a plethora of Auburn slot receivers and tight ends. Georgia has occasionally been exploited by slot receivers getting open deep, but it rarely happens, due to the great Bulldog front seven. There’s just not enough time for those routes to develop. Auburn’s tandem of quarterbacks should be well-seasoned by game 11, and will need to have a smart, accurate game, to keep the Dogs at bay. Advantage: Even.
The Bulldogs have a slight advantage on both defense and offense, but Auburn is more settled on special teams. History has shown that home field advantage means nothing in this series, as the road team has won more often. On defense, Auburn must contain the explosive Georgia players. Georgia must work and sustain drives for its points, and not benefit from big plays. The Auburn secondary has to keep receivers in front, and make the tackle. On offense, Auburn really will have to spread it around. Georgia must be kept guessing. If they can key on the running game, Auburn will be shut down. In addition, Auburn will need some big plays on special teams.
Prediction: Auburn will put up a valiant effort, and lead for much of the game. But, there will be struggles in the red zone, and a lot of field goals. In the end, Georgia will drive down and take the game in the waning moments, 27-26.