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Special Guest Enemy: Doug Gillett

First: apologies, loyal WBE readers, for the lack of content yesterday. The Mrs. WBE and your humble Auburn blogger are taking advantage of a few days off to do some traveling. I intended to wrap up a post yesterday a.m. before we took off, but overslept and didn’t get to post so much of a memo. Sorry. As for today and tomorrow, here’s this, I’m hopeful (though can’t promise) there’s more to come later today, and come hell or high water there will be a Friday preview tomorrow.

Anyways: Doug Gillett of Hey Jenny Slater is one of the college football blogosphere’s most respected bloggers and writers for a reason. Since he’s also happens to be a Dawg fan, we swapped Q’s and A’s this week. My answers should be up at his place sometime today. Thanks to Doug.

uga logo1. So it still seems weird to look back over Georgia’s schedule and see that they scored 41 points–41!–against a solid Carolina defense and 52–52!–on the road against Arkansas. But they haven’t scored more than 20 against any non-Vandy, non-IAA team since. What on earth was Georgia doing so right in those games that they haven’t done since, and is there any way they put the lightning back in the bottle this week?

Well, with South Carolina we got seven of those points off a 102-yard kickoff return, and with Arkansas we had the good fortune to face a defense that had no idea what it was doing just yet. After that, though, teams gradually started figuring out that we really didn’t have a running game to speak of, and thus felt free to key in like crazy on Joe Cox. That pressure has been a big part of why Cox has now thrown at least one interception to every DI-A opponent we’ve faced this season, and while there are certainly a few freaky, unlucky tipped balls in there, most of them have been just plain bad throws, the kinds of bad throws a fifth-year senior probably should’ve learned not to make by now.

Not being able to run the ball is not conducive to scoring a bunch of points; nor is handing the ball back to the opponent at every opportunity. Giving opponents a running game worth worrying about might help us a little down the stretch — we’ve now gotten things going on the ground in two straight games, so if we can keep that up against Auburn, maybe that’ll keep the pressure off Cox a little bit. Then again, a decent ground game didn’t keep him from throwing up a bunch of picks to Florida a couple weeks ago, but in the end there’s not a lot you can do against the Gator defense period. So I’m going to cross my fingers and hope they’ll end up being an outlier.

2. Is Willie Martinez coaching for his job this week, or has that train already left the station? Or, alternatively, is the train staying in the station no matter what happens?

I think Martinez is toast at the end of this season, even though Mark Richt does not and will not want him to be. There’s a chance the defense could really stand up over the last few games and lead us to some big wins, but let’s face it, there’s just no real evidence right now to believe that’s going to happen: Even after shutting out Tennessee Tech last week and holding them to 55 net yards, we’re still allowing the most points per game of any of Richt’s Georgia teams, and allowing more yards per game than all but the 2001 squad. And these are stats that have been getting progressively worse in each year of Martinez’s tenure.

Richt is famously loyal to his assistants, and he and Martinez go all the way back to their playing days at Miami. But Richt is smart enough to know that if he doesn’t shed Willie after this season, he will have spent all his cred with the fan base and, potentially, with Damon Evans, which means he’ll be coaching for his own job next season. My guess is that he gives in to the pressure and fires Martinez, but I’m not 100-percent sure of that.

3. The Dawg defense pitching a shutout and the offense scoring on its first 5 possessions against Tennessee Tech must have been a welcome tonic after the Cocktail Party loss. But is there really anything that game can tell us about this week’s game? If so, what?

There really aren’t any overarching conclusions you can take from the TTU game alone, but as I mentioned earlier, the fact that Washaun Ealey and the running game managed to get into a little bit of a groove against both TTU and Florida is cause for some optimism. I don’t know whether this is the cause of the ground game’s resurgence or a result of it, but Bobo’s playcalling seems to have loosened up a bit, too. I think we’ll see more of Ealey and perhaps even more of Branden Smith in the offensive mix over the last few weeks, which will throw some welcome wrinkles at opposing defenses.

As for the defense . . . they played great against Tennessee Tech, but that was about as bad an offensive line as we’re ever going to face. And in spite of our dominance in terms of yardage, we still didn’t get one takeaway from the Golden Eagles. Not one. Overall, it was a good enough performance to build back some confidence on defense, but there certainly weren’t any breakthroughs in scheme that are likely to pay any practical dividends against Auburn, Kentucky, or Georgia Tech.

4. Joe Cox has had a turnover problem this year, to put it mildly. Is this because Joe Cox has simply been in a generous mood, or because opposing defenses have rattled him into it? If it’s the former, is there any reason you’d expect him to stop this week, and if the latter, do you see Auburn being able to pull that trick off?

As I said earlier, I think a lot of it has to do with defenses feeling free to ignore the running game and key in on Joe. Auburn’s QB pressure has only been so-so this season, so between that and the improving running game, I don’t think Cox is going to have quite as bad a day against Auburn as he did against, say, Florida or Tennessee. But my guess is he still throws at least one pick to the Tigers.

5. My sense is that for all their troubles, the Dawgs remain a bit underrated–the wins over the Hogs and ‘Cocks are still solid, Cox had the flu vs. Okie St., the loss to LSU was close and maybe unlucky, and the Dawgs seemed to catch both the Vols and Gators at the exact wrong time. That’s a lot of excuses, I know, but this is still a team that’s two home wins away from a 5-3 SEC record only Florida, ‘Bama, and LSU will be able to trump. Do you agree that the Dawgs may be getting sold short, that they might be due for the kind of surprisingly killer performance they pulled off in ’06 and ’07?

Well, there’s no doubt that we’ve played one of the toughest schedules in the nation, perhaps the toughest season of Richt’s career, and that’s certainly affected the wins and losses columns. Think about how much different this season might look if we’d played Tennessee Tech to open the season, built up some confidence, then gotten to fly out to Stillwater last week and face a Dez Bryant-less Okie State team.

At the same time, as close as we are to a 5-3 SEC record, we’re just as close to being 1-5 in conference play right now (imagine if we didn’t have A.J. Green and hadn’t been able to power back from those early deficits against South Carolina and Arkansas). Penalties and turnovers are two big signs of a listless, undisciplined team, and we’ve been committing tons of both even against the weaker teams on our schedule. I think everyone’s going to be relieved to throttle back to a somewhat easier slate next season, but there are still a lot of problems with this team’s discipline, technique, and overall mentality that are still going to have to be addressed in the offseason.

6. The Georgia defense has been awfully soft all year long, but where has it been the softest? Will the Dawgs attempt to cut off the Auburn running game with a stacked box or start by cutting off the long throws downfield that burned the Rebels (among others)?

Our pass defense, ranked next-to-last in the SEC, has been our Achilles heel almost all season long, and unfortunately I think it’s too late to start implementing any wholesale changes in scheme at this point in the season. And it doesn’t really matter whether Georgia tries to cut off the deep passes, since we haven’t proven a consistent ability to put defenders within five yards of receivers no matter how far the opponent is trying to throw. I suspect that Richt knows our pass defense needs some help, particularly against a QB who’s been as proficient as Chris Todd has been on his good days, so I think our game plan will start there — I just don’t have any real confidence that it’s going to work.

7. We know about Rennie Curran, A.J. Green, Jeff Owens, etc. Name one Dawg on offense and one on defense that Auburn fans maybe haven’t heard of that will play a major role in Saturday’s outcome.

Branden Smith is officially listed as a defensive back on Georgia’s Web site, but he’s been inserted into the offense on a few plays this season — he had a 61-yard run against South Carolina and even ran some Wildcat-type plays against Tennessee Tech. I don’t think the intent of the coaches is to make him quite as big a part of the offense as, say, Champ Bailey was, but from everything I’ve heard he’s definitely going to continue to play a role against Auburn, and I’m looking forward to see what kind of trickery they can run with him.

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Justin Houston hasn’t seen the field all that much this season, relatively speaking — he was suspended for the first two games and then had to sit out the TTU game due to an elbow injury — but he still leads the team with five sacks and has given a much-needed shot in the arm to our QB pressure. Behind him, it’ll be interesting to see if Montez Robinson has earned any additional playing time after notching two sacks last week; he’s the kind of young, hungry player whom I really wish we’d utilized better this season.

8. From here, it doesn’t look like there’s much at stake for Georgia Saturday aside from “win vs. Auburn” and bowl positioning, which can’t matter too much since it’s probably going to wind up a subpar assignment regardless, barring a 3-0 finish. On the other hand, after the misery of the Vol and Gator games, I’m sure the need to beat some other team with a pulse is reaching desperation levels. Scale of 1 to 10, how badly do you, the Dawgs, and the Dawgs fanbase want and/or need this game?

As far as the fanbase and I are concerned, it’s right around a nine — Auburn is a big SEC rival, after all, and if we don’t win this one then it’s very likely that we finish the season having lost to our four biggest rivals (Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, and Georgia Tech) for the first time since the Donnan years. An inability to be consistently competitive against those four teams is really what pushed Donnan out the door in the first place, and I’ve got to think that’s weighing on Mark Richt’s mind some, too.

As for the players, I honestly don’t know, which is probably a bad sign in and of itself. Like you said, our only postseason options at this point are really “mid-tier bowl” or “lower-tier bowl,” and I can’t imagine that “Let’s get to the Outback Bowl, baby!” is stirring up a lot of emotion in the locker room. But another loss in ’09 would clinch the dubious “honor” of “worst season of Mark Richt’s tenure,” and I’ve got to think our players would very much like to avoid that. This team really hasn’t proven a lot this season, but a win over Auburn would go some distance toward changing that. After a 1-4 slump in the middle of 2006, which inspired similar fears that the program as a whole was beginning to stagnate, we notched a huge victory over Auburn that kicked off what might have been the most satisfying three-game run of the Richt era; I’m sure there are plenty of guys on our team who remember that finish and are really hoping they can do something like that again.

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