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Auburn-Georgia: Prologue to a Championship? (presented by The Wishbone)

Enough with the Georgia nay-saying, people!

Everywhere we’ve turned in the last couple of days, on those rare occasions when we’ve been able to find honest-to-goodness Auburn vs. Georgia football talk (as opposed to talk about you-know-what), all we’ve been seeing is warning after warning, admonition after admonition about how Georgia is in such a prime position to knock Auburn off and spoil the drive to Atlanta (and maybe beyond).

If you read our column on Wednesday, you know (if you didn’t already) that Georgia and Auburn have a long and storied history of spoiling one another’s good seasons—when the team that loses really had something to play for on the line.  Those who are trying to find a scenario whereby that could happen again this year have been working some of the following angles:

1. Georgia’s offense has started clicking in recent weeks and they could light up our famously accommodating defense. Their defense is playing better, too.

It’s true that Georgia (5-5 overall, 3-4 in the SEC) has scored thirty or more points in five straight games.  So we can reasonably expect them to top that number again Saturday. But—if you haven’t been watching closely, you might have missed it—Auburn’s defense has been getting better over the past few weeks.  Roof has been dialing up more blitzes and has changed up the coverages in the secondary more that he was before, and these adjustments were somewhat effective against Ole Miss.  It doesn’t hurt that we get back a few defensive players from injury, too—or at least have more of them available if needed. The Tigers are still running mostly a “bend but don’t break” sort of scheme but, given the improvement, there’s a chance Auburn may surprise us all with a strong showing on defense.

But let’s be honest.  Georgia is a much more dangerous offensive team than Ole Miss was.  Forget the games they lost early in the season when A.J. Green was out; Uga has his groove back now.  The offense is comparable statistically to South Carolina and the defense is comparable to Arkansas.  (It could be worse: they could be Arkansas on offense—yikes!—and South Carolina on… um… never mind.)  Their big weakness on defense has been on third down, where Georgia is eleventh in the SEC in allowing opponents to convert on third down (over 40% of the time).   Meanwhile, Auburn has been one of the best third down teams in the nation this season on offense.  So that does not bode well for the Dawgs.

At quarterback, Aaron Murray is having a nice season (60% completion rate, fifteen touchdowns, six interceptions).  He looks like the real deal, and should only improve as he gains more experience with the offense.  It doesn’t hurt that he has a great target to throw to in the aforementioned A. J. Green, either.  They have achieved something approaching balance on offense thanks to the running of sophomore Washaun Ealey.  He’s looked serviceable if not spectacular through ten games this season.

Based on what we’ve seen from Auburn’s defense this season, we have to believe that the Bulldogs are going to make a lot of plays on Saturday.  As with the Arkansas game, it’s probably just going to happen.  Defensive coaches have obliquely referenced this in some of their comments to the media this week, stressing that our defensive backs have to be able to put bad plays behind them, recover mentally and focus on the next play, and “not get beaten twice by the same mistake.”

On defense, in the first year of new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, Georgia plays a 3-4, something Auburn has not seen this season.  There will probably be some plays early in the game where the difference in assignments causes problems for the Auburn offense.   This will be a big test for the offensive line, backs and receivers in picking the right person to block.

Justin Houston is an excellent outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense and the NFL scouts love him.  He has passed Nick Fairley for the lead in sacks in the SEC so he will be a big test for the Auburn tackles and running backs when he comes after Cam.   At 6’ 3” and 258 pounds, he will provide a heavyweight matchup when he rushes Cam or when Cam runs to Houston’s side.

Georgia is starting a talented true freshman at strong safety, Alex Ogletree.  He has a lot of potential, but being a safety facing the misdirection and ball fakes of the Auburn offense could cause him a few problems, so look for Auburn to take advantage there.

Georgia’s special teams have been very good this year.  Both their kickers have played to All-SEC levels (Blair Walsh is 17 of 20 on field goals), and their kick-coverage units have done excellent jobs.  No wonder the Tiger coaches this week were so unhappy with Quindarius Carr dropping a punt and our punting duo doing such a mediocre job; I mean, they would have been upset anyway, but in a week where we’re facing one of the best special teams units we’ve seen all year, our problems in that area recently are particularly troubling.

2. The visiting team does well in this series, as does the underdog.

Historically the “visiting team” thing is true, and the 1990s were the epitome of this phenomenon, with Auburn winning in Athens in 1993, 1995, 1997, and 1999, while Georgia won in Auburn in 1992, 1994 (well, it was a tie but might as well have been a loss for us), 1996, and 1998.

The two programs have also derailed one another from championship runs on multiple occasions, the most recent and vivid of which for Auburn would probably be 1986, 2002, and 2006.  We can remember doing it to them a couple of times in the 1970s and especially 1983, too.

In the grand scheme of the series, though, such happenings are relatively rare, and there are plenty of other things that should occupy our collective minds before this.  It’s hard to see how something that happened in 1978 could have much impact on whether the Dawgs can stop Cam on Saturday, or on if the Auburn secondary can limit A. J. Green.  Speaking of whom:

3. Georgia is a different team on offense now that A. J. Green is back.

The more we study the individual tactical matchups and the overall strategic milieu of this game, the more we feel that it all comes down to this:  “Stop A. J. Green.”  We talked in our column earlier this week about the astounding day Auburn receiver Ronney Daniels had against UGA in 1999.  If Green can put together something approaching that kind of dominating performance, Georgia can win.  At the very least, a transcendent Green could cause this game to closely resemble the Kentucky contest in October, if not the Arkansas track meet, where Auburn had no choice but to keep scoring and win a shootout.  If, on the other hand, Green can be held to something like four catches for fifty yards, then everything else becomes much more difficult for Georgia and we should reasonably be able to predict that the Tigers will crush them.

4. Auburn lost to Georgia for the last four years, so maybe they have our number, like Florida has theirs.

Ridiculous.  Auburn’s endured several negative runs of late, including three wins in a row by LSU and a couple by Arkansas.  Those curses didn’t seem to matter much this season.  Georgia is more than overdue to have their string against us snapped.  They’ve eked out narrow escapes in most of those wins, or at least the Tigers kept things close until late in the game.  They’ve lived on borrowed time against Auburn for too long now, and the only number of ours Georgia will be seeing a lot of will be a white “2” on a blue background, coming right at them, over and over.

5. Georgia has nothing to lose and can play with reckless abandon, while the Tigers (with more on the line) could come out tight.

This Auburn team hasn’t shown the slightest inclination toward getting “tight” as the season has worn on and the stakes have gotten higher.  To the contrary—as the challenges have become stiffer, the Tigers have grown stronger.  The improvement of the offensive line, the blocking by the receivers, the running of Mike Dyer—all of these things point toward little possibility of a letdown on Saturday, or the rest of the season.

As for Georgia, while they have improved their fortunes of late, they have yet to beat a team with a winning record.  How will they respond if Auburn’s offense starts moving the ball consistently and grabs an early lead?  In the four SEC games the Dawgs have lost thus far this season, they never led.  If they fall behind again, how will they respond—reckless abandon or not?

6. Georgia is trying desperately to qualify for a bowl game, so they’re really hungry and will bring greater-than-expected effort.

Sure, Georgia wants to get to a bowl game.  But does anyone truly believe that the Dawgs’ desire to make it to Shreveport or Memphis is somehow greater than the Tigers’ hunger to clinch the freakin’ SEC Western Division title, secure a spot in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, and keep alive the hope of making it to Glendale, Arizona for the National Championship Game?  Seriously?

7. Auburn will be distracted by you-know-what.

Up through Tuesday of this week, we felt like that was unlikely.  The players were saying all the right things—things along the lines of, If it doesn’t bother Cam, it doesn’t bother us—and the coaches were fiercely defending our quarterback. The situation had taken something of a downward turn by Wednesday, though, with talk of admissions and FBI intervention and whatnot. We can’t know how these developments will change the situation until we see it with our own eyes.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say.  If that’s true, the Tigers should be breathing fire at 2:30 on Saturday.

So, in sum, take your nay-saying and your curses and your away-field-advantages and stick them.  This game will be decided between two teams on the field, one of which has a ton of things to play for, and is well aware of that fact—but is not overwhelmed by it.

If all goes as it should, Saturday’s game should turn out to be another glorious triumph for the Tigers in this storied series—and also something more:  A prologue to a championship. (Or two.)

John’s Not Looking Ahead, buuuut….

C’mon, y’all—it’s the Iron Bowl.  And John has a few thoughts about it.  Here we go:

You thought the fun was over after Les Miles chewed up the Tide along with the Tiger Stadium turf last weekend? Nope.  Miss State’s defense is going to give Alabama a hard time on Saturday night.  They will be able to shut down the run.  The Tide will win at the end but the home fans in Tuscaloosa will be unhappy leaving the stadium—imagine that—because they will know what is coming next.

Alabama’s 2010 football team is clearly not as good as the 2009 edition—but sometimes you need numbers to confirm what your eyes are telling you.  The two key areas are pass rush and protecting the passer.

The table below shows the 2009 Alabama stats (through the same number of weeks) and then the 2010 stats.  In these three categories Alabama is significantly worse than last season.   (By contrast, Ole Miss, which did a great job of containing Mr. Fairley and company, is now number one in the SEC in fewest sacks allowed at less than one per game.)

Alabama 2009
Sacks:  national rank 14, 2.88 average, SEC rank 1
Tackles for loss:  national rank 18, 7.38 average, SEC rank 1
Sacks allowed:  national rank 12, 1 average, SEC rank 1

Alabama 2010
Sacks:  national rank 105, 4.22 average, SEC rank 12
Tackles for loss:  national rank 95, 4.78 average, SEC rank 12
Sacks allowed:  national rank 100, 2.78 average, SEC rank 10

What do these things mean for Auburn?

Alabama is not nearly as good as LSU or South Carolina on the defensive line and not as good as Ole Miss or South Carolina on the offensive line.  Against our offensive line, Alabama is going to have a hard time improving these numbers.  Look at that again: the Alabama defense, home of all five-star recruits, is last in sacks and tackles for losses in the SEC.

And while Alabama is more balanced offensively this season, they are allowing a lot more sacks on the pass attempts they do make.  After watching Drake Nevis dominate them last week, Alabama has to be genuinely afraid of Nick Fairley and what he will do their offense.

The Wishbone Mailbag

Dear Wishbone,
I have heard that it is wise for Georgia fans to pack a poncho or other water-resistant clothing before venturing to the Plains, as occasional rainstorms can sweep through Jordan-Hare Stadium.  Please advise.
H. Dawg, Athens, GA

Dear H. Dawg,
While it is true that, at least in one past Auburn-Georgia contest, a rainstorm did unexpectedly materialize at the end of the game, we must point out that this was a highly unusual occurrence.  The rainstorm in question struck at the end of the game for only a short time and was extremely localized; it covered only the visitors’ sections and part of the playing field.  Almost magically, it ended once the Georgia fans departed the stadium.  Consequently, we do not see a tremendous likelihood of such an event happening again—unless certain Dawgs didn’t get the message last time.

The Wishbone’s SEC Power Rankings, Afraid-to-Turn-on-the-TV Edition

The Elite:  Auburn.
That is, as long as certain off-the-field talk doesn’t start affecting on-the-field play.

The Very Good:  LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Miss State, Florida.
There’s been a lot of movement in the middle of the pack all season, and it continues this week.  LSU has proven you can be very good without (at times) much of an offense, and Auburn has proven you can be elite without (at times) very much of a defense.  Alabama’s estimation in the eyes of the pundits certainly has taken a beating in the days since they were licked by that cud-chewing lunatic in Baton Rouge, while MSU’s has risen steadily (as long as we’re talking about performance on the field and not rumor mongering).  So the Tide-Dawg showdown on Saturday should be most interesting to watch.  Arkansas opened up a serious can of hot sauce on Carolina last weekend and pounded the poultry flat enough to make chicken parmesan.  And who knows what to make of Florida?  We can only hope to find out in Atlanta in a few weeks…

The Might Be Good:  South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky.
They should have removed the calendars from the locker room at Williams-Bryce.  Apparently the Gamecocks saw that we’d reached the outskirts of November and decided to perform their annual swoon.  Georgia we’ll know a bit more about in a couple of days.  Kentucky has a chance to make a bowl game and finish the year on a high note, but if only they could have played with a bit more consistency this year they would have had a season to remember.

The Not Good:  Nobody this week.
Quite a drop-off down to:

The Wretched:  Tennessee, Vanderbilt.
And neither seems ready to move up any time soon, though we suppose one of them has to actually win their season-ending showdown in a couple of weeks.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.

Graphic via THE Matt Lane Harris.

About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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