Bulldogs circle the wagons.
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On November 15th, the Tigers travel to Athens, Georgia to take on the Bulldogs in what should be a battle of top ten teams. This game has been a difficult one for the Tigers in recent years, as Auburn has only beaten Georgia twice in the last 8 contests.
Georgia suffered a rash of injuries to skill players last year, which resulted in a disappointing 5-loss season. One would think that a more normal injury situation should be in the offing this year, but the injuries continue in this year’s preseason camp. Receiver Malcomb Mitchell is out after having knee surgery recently, and counterpart Reggie Davis was sporting a cast on his left hand. Add in some suspensions and tranfers, and Georgia will have a tough start to the season in 2014.
Should the Bulldogs survive September still in contention, they have a favorable schedule. Georgia opens with Clemson on Labor Day weekend, then has a week off to prepare for a big road trip to South Carolina. The Bulldogs tune up on Troy the following week, before hosting Tennessee to close out September. Vanderbilt concludes the homestand in October, then Georgia travels to Missouri and Arkansas. Another off-week preceeds the annual Jacksonville clash against Florida. Georgia then travels to Kentucky to tune up, before hosting the Auburn Tigers. The Bulldogs conclude the season hosting Charleston Southern, followed by Georgia Tech. With open dates before their two biggest SEC East threats, Georgia has a great chance to win the division.
Auburn will have played Arkansas and San Jose State at home, Kansas State on the road, Louisiana Tech for homecoming, then LSU, followed by Mississippi State in Starkville. The Tigers have a bye week, then South Carolina at home before traveling to Oxford to play the Ole Miss Rebels. A home tilt against Texas A&M preceeds Auburn’s trip to Athens.
Georgia is one of many SEC teams this fall that has to replace a big-name starting quarterback, but fifth year senior Hutson Mason does have experience and ability. Georgia has a stable of explosive running backs led by Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Even with numerous wide receiver injuries, most SEC squads would love to have a starting tandem of Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. Where Georgia might struggle is blocking. The Bulldogs must replace three offensive line starters, and they were not exactly a powerhouse here last season. Also this week the local news outlets are reporting that starting fullback Merritt Hall is being medically disqualified from football due to concussion issues.
I got a chance to watch a chunk of the Georgia spring game on CSS a few months ago, and one big takeaway was the the Bulldogs had a lot of trouble protecting the quarterback on both squads. While one can blame the offensive line issues, I think Georgia has one of the scarier defensive front seven groups in the SEC. The Bulldogs added FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to the staff during the offseason, and my guess is that the Bulldogs will finally have defensive play-calling to match the success the offense has had over the past few seasons.
Where injuries and depth issues can really hurt a squad is on special teams, and that might have had an effect on the return game last season, where Georgia got almost nothing. The Bulldogs averaged just 2.9 yards per punt return, and only 18.6 on kick returns. The Bulldogs were decent on coverage, and return a strong pair of kicking legs in Marshall Morgan and Colin Barber.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Georgia offensive line: Auburn’s final starting lineup next fall is a bit up in the air, at this point. I’d expect senior Gabe Wright to start somewhere, either at tackle or end. Expect tackles Angelo Blackson, Jeffery Whitaker, Montravius Adams, and Ben Bradley to all play prominent roles. LaDarius Owens will likely anchor the run-stopping end spot, with Elijah Daniels now the likely rush end starter. Carl Lawson is coming off spring knee surgery, and the latest word is that he might or might not play at all, in 2014. There is room for newcomers to make an impact at end, especially on passing downs. Georgia’s starting offensive line, from left to right will likely be senior Mark Beard, senior Kolton Houston, senior David Andrews at center, sophomore Greg Pike and juior John Theuse at right tackle. There are 57 starts sprinkled amongst this group, and the hope is that this line will gel soon. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Georgia backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are juniors Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Both are veteran, athletic SEC players, looking to make the next move up. For purposes of playing a pro-I team like Georgia, one must consider the Star position a run-stopping one. Auburn has two of its best defenders at that spot, senior Robensen Therezie, backed up by junior Justin Garrett, who is said to be having an amazing fall camp. Georgia has had something of a MASH unit at running back in recent years, but they have been deep enough to withstand injuries, and appear to be loaded again this year. Juniors Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall would likely start for any team in the country, and sophomore Brendan Douglas made an impact last season. It’s a tall task for Auburn, but it should be noted that last season the Tigers held Gurley and co. to just 117 rushing yards. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Georgia receivers: Auburn is again fairly deep at corner, with veteran Jonathan Mincy hopefully locking down one spot, and either junior Joshua Holsey or junior Jonathan Jones at the other spot. Senior converted wide receiver Trovon Reed also looked pretty good in spring drills here. Auburn should be able to run with any receiving corps, and play physical run defense on the edges. The Tigers will need to be better against the Georgia passing game than they were during a disastrous 4th quarter meltdown last season. Georgia will go with a dangerous pair of senior receivers who seem like they’ve been playing for 10 years, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. There’s depth and skill beyond those two, also. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn safeties vs. Georgia secondary receivers and quarterback: Senior Jermaine Whitehead anchors one spot here, and Auburn will feature JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief at the other position. Moncrief was a beast in spring drills, this year. Georgia likes to throw to the tight end and fullback, but loses huge target Arthur Lynch to the NFL. Likely replacements include sophomores Quayvon Hicks and Jarred Chapple, and juniors Jack Loonam and Jay Rome. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn must start a new punter, here, and the job is up in the air going into the second week of fall camp. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchenson, had a really solid A-Day game and was the expected starter, but by all accounts the job is still a wide-open competition. There is a possibility that redshirt freshman kicker Daniel Carlson might handle both punting and kicking. Georgia will go with junior Colin Barber, who sported a gaudy 44.1 yard average last season. Despite the long punts, 20 of Barber’s 29 punts were either killed inside the 20 or fair-caught. Georgia gave up just 4.3 yards per return, compared to Auburn’s 7.0. The Tigers are still trying to find a punt return man, also. The most experienced guy returning is senior Quan Bray. Georgia is also searching for a return man, after averaging just 2.9 yards per return in 2013. Advantage: Georgia.
Kickoffs: Auburn must replace veteran kicker Cody Parkey, and will do it with redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson. Georgia counters with junior Marshall Morgan, who tallied 17 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs a year ago. Auburn’s coverage was porous, giving up 25.8 yards per return, while Georgia gave up 21.4. Auburn senior Corey Grant ripped off 5 returns for a 32.0 yard average for Auburn as the top guy coming back. Sophomore J. J. Green led the Bulldogs last season with a 24.0 yard average. Advantage: Georgia.
Place kicking: Auburn redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. He hit a monster 51 yard field goal this year in the Auburn A-Day game, but also missed an extra point. After struggling as a freshman kicker, Georgia junior Marshall Morgan was almost automatic last season, hitting 22 of 24 field goal attempts. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn offensive line vs. Georgia defensive line: Auburn returns 4 starters on a road-grading, violent offensive line. Greg Robinson moves on to the NFL, but Auburn has talent to replace him. From left to right, it’s sophomore Shon Coleman, senior Chad Slade, senior all-SEC Reese Dismukes, sophomore Avery Young, and junior Patrick Miller at right tackle. Georgia counters with an athletic, quick line. Senior Mike Thornton anchors the middle, while juniors Sterling Bailey and James DeLoach hold down the end spots. When Georgia needs beef up front, they can call upon junior Chris Mayes and redshirt freshman John Atkins, both of whom tip the scales at over 320 pounts. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Georgia linebackers: Although Auburn lost Heisman finalist Tre Mason early to the NFL draft, Auburn should be fine here with seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Grant was this year’s A-Day star, looking even more explosive and unstoppable. Add in a corps of talented newcomers, and it’s no secret Auburn will be able to tote the rock again this season. H-back is a bit thinner. Senior blocking specialist Brandon Fulse moves from end/receiver to take over the starting nod, but depth behind him is questionable. Georgia returns a veteran group that can attack from all angles. Listed as starters are sophomore Leonard Floyd, junior Jordan Jenkins, and seniors Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Georgia corners: Auburn juniors Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis developed into one of the more dangerous receiving duos in the SEC, last season. Add in monster transfer D’haquille Williams, and this unit became downright scary this spring, with lots of depth behind the big three. Georgia senior Damian Swann is a veteran corner, and the latest depth chart has redshirt freshman Aaron Davis as the other starter. Georgia had a problem giving up big plays in the secondary last season, and might again this year. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Georgia safeties: Auburn senior tight end C. J. Uzomah is a nightmare for safeties to cover. When Auburn needed to go to him late in games last season, C. J. was there every time to haul in the score. Auburn also has senior Quan Bray in the equation, who’s been the career quick screen guy. When guys start to clamp down on him, he can get open down the field. Auburn returns senior quarterback Nick Marshall, and he’s easily the most dangerous guy returning at the position in the SEC this fall. With a spring spent working on a shaky passing game, the sky’s the limit this fall. Marshall was devastating running the zone-read option last fall. Georgia dismissed both starting safeties during the offseason, and has had to go to the bullpen there. Senior Corey Moore does have experience, and he’ll be joined by sophomore J. J. Green, who was primarily a return man last season and had only 2 tackles. Advantage: Auburn.
Georgia has the skill up front to slow down Auburn’s rushing attack, and the Tigers last saw coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive coaching ability in the BCS Title game against Florida State. That said, departed coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense was similar, and Auburn gashed it last season for 43 points, 323 rushing yards, and 566 total yards. This should be a great battle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
Is any offensive coordinator more unappreciated than Georgia’s Mike Bobo? I listened to Georgia fans in numerous spots in Athens, and in the stands in 2011, where the Bulldogs trounced Auburn 45-7, and all I heard was grousing about the offense and Bobo’s play-calling. The way I see it, Georgia every year is among the SEC offensive leaders, and consistently scores points. Under Mark Richt, Georgia has scored over 400 points in 7 different seasons, including the last 4 in a row. To put that in perspective, Auburn has only scored 400 points or more 5 times in its entire history.
Prediction: A difficult schedule finally trips the Tigers, who will be playing their 6th tough SEC squad in a row. Georgia wins this one, 38-27.