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Friday preview: Georgia

uga auburn classicWhat’s at stake

More for Auburn. But Georgia needs it more.

Those two sentences (or, to be grammatically correct, sentence fragments) sound crazy together, but I think they’re both true, and I’ll explain why starting with this: Georgia doesn’t have a lot on the line in terms of tangible rewards. With both teams well out of the running in their respective divisions, the winner gets pride and better bowl positioning and that’s it. “Better bowl positioning,” however, is a big deal for an Auburn team that missed the postseason entirely last year and missed New Year’s the year prior. Getting to the Cotton on his first talent-and-depth-hamstrung attempt would be a huge feather in Chizik’s cap. Meanwhile, does Georgia really care about getting to Chik-Fil-A rather than the Music City? I don’t think they do. Add in that Auburn’s many Georgia-bred players (not to mention the coaches and fans) would really, really like to put a stop to three years’ worth of losing to the Dawgs, and I think Auburn has both more to lose and more to gain.

But damn does Georgia need a win. The Dawgs are in legitimate danger of not just posting the worst, most disappointing season of Mark Richt’s tenure–barring a huge late-season surge, that’s already clinched–but of slumping all the way to 5-7 and definitively ceding the role of the other power in the SEC East to Lane Freaking Kiffin’s Vols. Beyond that, it’s not just the Dawgs’ record–it’s the obvious, precipitous, unabated decline since the 2007 Sugar Bowl run, the total uncompetitiveness vs. Florida and Tennessee, the unmistakable stench of complacency from the coaching staff. Lose to Gene Chizik and Auburn at home, and the Dawgs’ misery only gets deeper; win, and here come two legitimately winnable games vs. Kentucky and overrated Georgia Tech that could push Richt back to comfort and safety just-that-quick. This a big-pressure, big-reward game for the Dawgs even if the immediate benefits don’t look like much.

When Auburn has the ball

Look at it this way: per-play, Georgia’s defense is exactly as bad as Auburn’s.

Except they might secretly be even worse. The Dawgs have been terribly inconsistent, holding Okie St., Vanderbilt, and Arizona St. all under  4.5 yards a snap (and Tennessee Tech to 1.2 in a huge statistical boost) but giving a whopping 7.4 yards a play to Tennessee, 7.7 to Arkansas, 6.1 to Florida. Allowing 368 yards at home to an LSU team that had struggled badly coming into that game or 428 to South Caroline was hardly impressive, either; you have to go all the way back to that Oklahoma St. game to find the Dawgs putting together a solid performance against an offense with a pulse.

Making things for Georgia is that they don’t do anything particularly well: they’re 40th in rush defense and have allowed four different opponents (Ok. St., Tennessee, LSU, Florida) to rush for 150 yards or more. But they’re even worse in pass defense: next-to-last in the SEC (and to 12th but for the grace of the Hogs they’d go) and 80th in the country in opponent’s passing rating. Their five total interceptions ties them for 96th. On paper, this is the kind of defense Auburn ought to shred: not stout enough to shut down Ben Tate and the running game without help, but way too soft in the secondary to provide that help without risking Todd going bananas. Arkansas and Kentucky closed off the Auburn passing game and got away with letting Tate get his; LSU shut down the first- and second-down Auburn runs and ate Todd and the pass protection alive on third down. Georgia doesn’t look capable of doing either one of those things, and teams that haven’t have gotten toasted.

But of course, looking uncapable doesn’t mean jack; Arkansas’s secondary is still the most flammable substance this side of a Japanese chef’s volcano oil and Todd got nothing done against them. Auburn’s quarterback was functional vs. Tennessee and not-entirely-to-blame in Baton Rouge, but the facts are that Todd hasn’t looked entirely like himself (well, what we think of as his 2009 self) in any road game yet this year. And as I pointed out to Doug yesterday, Auburn can shown they can overcome a lot of issues elsewhere, but they haven’t yet won a game where Todd was a non-factor.

It doesn’t seem fair to pin the entire offensive outcome on one guy’s shoulders, but I think I have to: Auburn’s going to find some running room for Tate and Fannin (they have in nearly every game this season) and we all-but-know there’s going to be some opportunities for Todd to make some plays against this secondary. If he makes them, Auburn’s going to put up big numbers. If he doesn’t, welcome to Kentuckyville. I really think it’s that simple.

When Georgia has the ball

you’re looking at the statistical equivalent of the Auburn defense. You know how Auburn’s tempo stretches games out and distorts per-game averages? Well, Georgia’s offense is an ugly 88th in total O but 44th in yards-per-play. It’s not all the 8-yards-a-snap outliers vs. T-Tech and Arkansas, either: the Dawgs racked up 5.8 a play vs. a good Carolina defense, 5.9 at Vandy, a perfectly respectable 5.1 vs. the Gators. (Only Arkansas was better vs. Florida.) With Washaun Ealey finally deciding the starting tailback quandary, A.J. Green as dangerous as any receiver in football, and an extremely-experienced offensive line that’s underachieved overall this season but has started to find its footing, the tools are here for the Dawgs to have a competent–maybe even quality–offense.

But ther’s two reasons Auburn has to feel confident about holding their own:

1. Turnovers. Georgia’s offense has given the ball away 22 times, 11th-most in D-I. Meanwhile, Auburn has 19 takeaways, 28th-best. Even if Georgia racks up the yards (and against Auburn’s defense, they’ll rack up some), they won’t put many points on the board if Cox keeps tossing picks and the skill guys keep putting the ball on the ground. Demond Washington’s move to safety won’t help stop the Dawg running game, but he might be even better equipped to make a play in coverage than Zac Etheridge was.

2. Washaun Ealey isn’t the kind of back that’s given Auburn trouble. Auburn has had all kinds of issues with the shifty guys, the burners, the breakway threats: Noel Devine, Dexter McCluster, Russell Shepard, Michael Smith, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke … they’ve all taken their turns torching Auburn for big gains.

But the bruisers? Not so much. Charles Scott ran 10 times for 20 yards. Branden Bolden was only worse against the Tide. Anthony Dixon was mostly held in check. Especially with Eltoro Freeman giving Auburn  not just a functional linebacker but an actual playmaker on the weakside, it’s hard to see Ealey having the kind of breakout game that would let the Dawgs keep up with a functioning Auburn offense.

Oh, that’s not to say he won’t find some holes here or there. But Cox is going to have to make some throws and be careful with the ball to give the Dawgs a chance to pull the game out, and while we know he’s capable, his m.o. to date is that he may not pull it off.

When special teams are on the field

The same old drill: the placekicking is even (Blair Walsh hasn’t missed from beyond 40 this season), Auburn’s kickoff coverage looks like it’s going to be a major headache yet again (the Dawgs have returned 2 kicks for TDs already), and everything else save field goal block favors the opponent to boot. (Phil Steele has Georgia’s special teams ranked 3rd, compared to Auburn’s 95th. Just FYI.) If Auburn can avoid getting outright crushed here, that’s a win.

Intangible reason for worry

Hmm, howzabout that Georgia remains a tremendously talented team with a history of late-season surges that like Arkansas in Week 6 is due for a good performance-slash-big win and will be playing at home against a team they’ve beaten three years in a row? Are those enough intangibles for you?

Intangible reason for confidence

There is this: both teams have been preparing for this game for two weeks. The coaches doing the preparing on Auburn’s side are Gus Malzahn and Ted Roff/Gene Chizik. The coaches preparing on Georgia’s side are Mike Bobo and Willie Martinez. I may be Homer McHomerson here, but to me that’s point in Auburn’s favor.

Three wishes

1. No special teams touchdowns given up. This includes returns down to the Auburn 20 or so. If Georgia doesn’t get this kind of help, it’s hard to see them putting that many points on the board.

2. Ben Tate goes over 100 yards, Mario Fannin goes over 50. Todd is the bigger bellweather, but Auburn can give him more slack to work with if the running game is its usual stout self.

3. Three pass plays of 40-yards-plus. Three’s a lot, but against this secondary, I think Auburn can manage it … if Todd’s on his game. For an offense whose biggest concern over the past few weeks has been third-down conversions, picking up big chunks of yards like this is more crucial than ever.

Success is / failure is: a win/ a loss

Your bottom line

In the immediate aftermath of the Ole Miss game, I still had this chalked up as a loss for Auburn. The Tigers had been garbage in their last two road games, Georgia looked (and still looks) underrated when you look at their entire season, and the Dawgs would be by far the more “due” team after the big W vs. the Rebels.

But looking over the matchups this past week … I think Auburn’s the better team. The two defenses are pretty much even; the way Auburn’s matches up vs. the Dawg running game and the way the Dawg secondary matches up against an offense that will be committed to testing them deep, I think Auburn’s might even be expected to perform a little better. On the flip side, Auburn’s offense is clearly better when firing on all cylinders; the Tigers make big plays down the field while the mistake-prone Dawgs make them for the other team.

The problem is that there’s still no telling how many cylinders the Auburn offense will be firing on. As mentioned before, there’s no statistical basis for that wretched first half Auburn had in Fayetteville, or for the meltdowns vs. Kentucky and LSU. Do you trust that the Ole Miss game and the Furman exhibition mean that the old magic is back for good or not?

I think it’s back enough. Even with the intangibles so overwhelmingly in favor of the Dawgs, I think Todd does enough (and the Dawg ground game does little enough) that Auburn makes just a couple more stops than the Dawgs. Road-field advantage: restored.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …

Carnac

Auburn 30, Georgia 27.

Awesome photo via JRS.

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