Thursday, November 13
Better dead than spread: the Auburn preview.
In case you were wondering "Will Georgia fans ever get tired of this picture," the answer is: No. No, we won't.
Hometown: Auburn, Ala.
Last season: Got off to a rough 1-2 start that included one home loss to South Florida, one home loss to Mississippi State, and several closed head wounds for QB Brandon Cox; got off the mat to finish 9-4 (5-3 in conference), beat Clemson in overtime in the Peach Bowl, and finish 15th in the sportswriters' poll, 14th in the coaches'.
The season thus far: The Tigers started 4-2 but only averaged 18.7 points per game in the process under Tony Franklin's Maybe Kind Of If You Squint Really Hard It Looks Like A Spread offense, which Tommy Tuberville deemed worthy of a shocking midseason firing. Since then, things have actually gotten worse, with the Tigers averaging 15.3 points and 0 wins per game against FBS competition; they did break a four-game schneid by beating D-IAA Tennessee-Martin last week, and currently sit at 5-5, 2-4 in SEC play.
Hate index, 1 being Zaxby's chicken fingers, 10 being Saxby Chambliss: Five and a half, down a point from last year. I still can't stand Tommy Tuberville, but the Auburn fans I know are all pretty decent. In fact, since I moved to Alabama, Auburn has beaten Georgia twice and Alabama has beaten us only once, yet Alabama fans were douchier after that one win than Auburn fans were after both of theirs combined. So take that for what it's worth, I guess.
Besides, if Matt Stafford doesn't have a problem with Auburn fans, why should you?
Associated hottie: Voice actress Kate Higgins has not only done voices for dozens of different anime characters, she's also a trained jazz pianist. And would you believe she's 39?
Celebrity preview: Oh, sure, y'all thought Keith Olbermann was just being his usual hyperbolic self when he predicted doom and misery for Auburn's spread offense back in July -- now who looks silly, hmmmm?
What excites me: Nobody who follows SEC football at all needs to be reminded of just what a disaster the Auburn offense has been since Tommy Tuberville tapped Tommy Franklin to transform the scheme from three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust to incomplete-pass-and-a-chorus-of-boos, and the situation certainly hasn't gotten any better since Tuberville gave Franklin the ax and inserted Steve Ensminger as the interim OC. But if you need hard stats, here's the lowdown on just how dire things have become on the Plains: The famously rugged Auburn running game, for decades the meat and potatoes of their offense, is listing along at 63d in the country with 146.1 yards per game -- and that's the best thing they've got going for them at the moment. Their passing game is 99th in the nation in yardage and 108th in efficiency; overall, the Auburn offense is 100th in total yardage and 102d in scoring. They're 88th best in 3rd-down conversions, tied for 97th in interceptions thrown with 13, and tied for 92d in turnover margin. They're 59th in the nation in sacks allowed and 115th in tackles for loss. This all adds up to a big steaming dump-truckload of FAIL, and there have been precious few signs of improvement since Franklin was shown the door.
Well, that was a fun 10 months. Keep the shirt, it's yours.
Even the defense has struggled of late -- they've allowed an average of 389 yards per game over their past four contests, and that's been given up to such not-exactly-juggernaut-esque offenses as West Virginia, Ole Miss, and UT-Martin. Their weakness against the run is particularly puzzling -- they gave up 188 rushing yards to Arkansas, 271 to WVU, and 233 to Ole Miss. Assuming that Auburn doesn't somehow ring up a multiple-TD lead on the Dawgs at any point -- and, given their offensive woes, there's no reason to expect they will -- Knowshon Moreno should be able to let 'er rip on Saturday.
And even if Auburn does take some kind of early lead, panicky Dawg fans can still take heart, as the Tigers are 5-5 despite having led at halftime in every single game this season except for Ole Miss. Whether this is due to a lack of depth or just a lack of focus I have no idea, but it's a pretty amazing statistic. Should the game come down to a last-second Auburn field goal -- and obviously I'm hoping it won't -- the ulcers will continue: Wes Byrum, who got to be the big hero last year after kicking the game-winning field goal against Florida not once but twice, has been having a pretty lousy year. He's just 11 of 18 on field goals for the season (just over 60 percent), and is barely above a 50-50 bet (7 of 13) on anything longer than 30 yards. Maybe God is paying Byrum back for doing the Gator chomp in Gainesville last year; He certainly didn't have any qualms about sticking it to us.
What worries me: Granted, the bar has been set perilously low for this sort of thing, and granted, it was against UT-Martin, but the long-suffering Tigers appeared to finally take a step toward acquiring an offensive identity last week -- and that identity should be worrisome to anyone who watched the Dawgs get run all over by Kentucky. That identity appears to be, in the words of Auburn blogger Jerry Hinnen, "Hey, let's see if Kodi can pull something out of his rear end": The Tigers' starting QB ran for 158 yards (and 2 TDs) on only 13 carries against UTM and added another 130 yards through the air. I can only pray that Burns hasn't had any conversations with Kentucky QB Randall Cobb this week; we don't need the kid getting any ideas.
Another first down? Sir, I'm really going to have to insist that you stop doing that.
The cleat prints left on the faces of the Dawg defenders in Lexington speak to a disturbing trend regarding our run defense. After allowing a total of only 313 rushing yards in their first six games -- including three opponents held under 20 net yards -- the Georgia D has allowed 713 rushing yards in its last four contests. And running quarterbacks were a problem for us even before Randall Cobb left us repeatedly in his dust.
It's possible that the Kentucky scare was mainly the product of a bummed-out team still sulking over getting humiliated in Jacksonville and having their last shot at the national title emphatically yanked from their reach. If that's the case, and the Dawgs got the wake-up call they needed in Lexington, then great. But the Auburn team they're going up against on Saturday may be just as fired up, if not more so -- at 5-5, the Tigers need to beat either Georgia or Alabama to earn a bowl invite, and it's safe to say that a top-10 scalp in the waning weeks of the regular season would go a long way toward salving the embarrassment of the '08 season and building some momentum for '09. It's not quite the situation Georgia was in when they wandered down to the Plains this time two years ago, but it's not all that far off, either.
On the offensive side of the ball, Georgia has reason to be confident after shredding a decent Kentucky D for more than 500 yards last week, but with right tackle Justin Anderson out this week (and probably next) due to a foot injury, we're down to seven total offensive linemen, a situation that has gone from unfortunate to downright comical. Regardless of what they do as far as protecting Stafford or blocking for Knowshon, I think a lot of us would be happy for the seven of them to simply get out of Auburn in one piece.
Player who needs to step up: DE Roderick Battle. If Jerry Hinnen's read on the situation is remotely accurate, the game plan for the Auburn offense is a steady dose of Kodi Burns until further notice, and as Burns demonstrated against UT-Martin, he's got potential to do a lot of damage with his legs. As if we weren't having enough trouble pressuring the quarterback already, last week's near-debacle against Kentucky made it clear: We simply have to do a better job of getting to the QB, and as one of the most talented and experienced guys on our defensive front, Battle has to take the lead in making that happen.
What I think will happen: I think our guys are smart enough to realize that getting 38 points hung on them by a once-moribund Kentucky offense was an entirely sub-optimal situation, so for the time being I'm going to make an ass out of you and me and assume that they'll give a better effort in Auburn in a couple days. Problem is, Auburn's going to be every bit as motivated, if not more so, knowing that they've basically got to win this game to get to a bowl (unless they've got some foolproof master plan for going into Tuscaloosa and knocking off the number-one team in the country). So the intangibles here are, at best, a wash. As much fun as I'm sure we'd all have watching Auburn throw in the towel early the way Tennessee seems to have done, I doubt that's going to happen.
That said, we could help our case considerably by hitting some big plays early and grabbing a big lead -- not that that did us all that much good against Kentucky, of course, but forcing Auburn to play from behind and win with Kodi Burns's arm as opposed to his legs will benefit us here. If Hinnen's scouting report on the Auburn defense is any indication, the Tigers may not have the oomph on that side of the ball to deal with our offensive balance; nobody they've played so far this year has anywhere near the balance or the overall talent level we've got with Stafford, Moreno, Massaquoi, and A.J. Green. To put things in perspective, the only teams that even come close to the '08 Bulldogs in either regard are Arkansas and West Virginia -- and Arkansas went over 400 total yards against the Tigers, while WVU overcame an early two-touchdown deficit to roll up more than 250 rushing yards and win by 17. As long as Georgia doesn't end up in the kind of deep holes it found itself in against Alabama and Florida, Knowshon will get enough carries to get into his usual groove, and Matt Stafford will be able to manage the game without feeling the need to make big, risky throws.
The big worry this weekend, though, is still the defense. On the one hand, it should be comforting when you get to base your entire defensive strategy on stopping a single guy. But that'll only be the case if we can corral Kodi Burns a lot better than we did Randall Cobb, and as tempting as it would be to simply put eight or nine guys in the box and tell them to go eat, Burns did demonstrate against Ole Miss (27-of-43 passing for 319 yards) that he can complete a long bomb or two if the opposing defense puts too many people up front and leaves the rest of the field wide open. Burns did throw three picks against the Rebels, but that doesn't necessarily mean much for a Georgia defense that's only picked off nine passes all year long.
Maybe the Chargers would let us borrow Tra Battle for the afternoon? We'll give him back in time for Pittsburgh, we promise.
Given the DEFCON 1 status we've been put on after the Kentucky scare, I'd expect Willie Martinez to stack the line on early downs and try to box Auburn into a lot of third-and-long situations. What we do after that, though, is a good question. Burns has actually been pretty effective in those situations over the last couple games both as a runner and a passer, just effective enough that Georgia can't simply blitz like it's going out of style and hope that none of Auburn's receivers make a play. Here again, building an early lead is going to be critical so that we can force Burns to be a passer in those situations and put ourselves in a position to pick off some of those balls like Ole Miss did.
If we come out aggressively on offense the way we did against Kentucky, that'll be a good start, but the hungriness of the Auburn team and the sheer unpredictability of Burns leads me to doubt we're going to be rolling up any huge leads like we've done the last few years. Yes, Dawg fans, I know, Auburn's terrible this year, they couldn't score in a monkey whorehouse with their pants full of bananas, blah blah blah, but are you really 100-percent confident in that? Underdog status has never held that much influence in this rivalry, and you'll recall that the last time Georgia faced an Auburn team with a losing record (1999), the Tigers marched into Sanford Stadium and unloaded on us to the tune of a 31-0 deficit before the bands had even lined up for the halftime show. Two years ago, of course, Georgia was unranked and reeling from losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky but managed to beat the tar out of a fifth-ranked Auburn team just the same. I certainly don't want any of our players taking anything for granted this weekend, and I'd advise our fans to take the same precaution.
I think we will win, but maybe it's just the Eeyore in me, I don't see the Dawgs maintaining a lead of much more than 10 points at any juncture in the game; if this matchup follows anything like the pattern of the Kentucky game, Georgia will put some points on the board early but never quite put the Tigers away as Burns busts some big third-down plays to keep his team in the game. In the end, though, I'd look for Georgia to put their foot down late by forcing a big Auburn turnover and then riding Knowshon Moreno (and, perhaps, Richard Samuel) to the finish line. In any case, a win is a win, and regardless of how we manage to hook it up, I'll take 9-2 going into a bye week with Clean Old-Fashioned Hate left to go.
If you're trash-talking: Well, after a season like this one, you'd think "Dude, your offense sucks" would be all you'd need. But given the lucrative side business Tony Franklin managed to put together selling his spread scheme to high schools, one could posit that it doesn't speak well of the intelligence of Auburn's players that they haven't been able to figure out a high-school offense. (Of course, if Kodi Burns goes apeshit and Auburn becomes the third team in a month to hang 38 points on us, forget I said that.)
This is unlikely to stop being funny to us, either (at least until the Tigers figure out how to score points or Tubs gets fired, whichever comes first).
Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: Well, first of all, because Tommy Tuberville is a smarmy douche. But if you really want Auburn to make it to a bowl this year, wouldn't it be more awesome if they did it at the expense of the number-one team in the country rather than number ten? If the Tigers were 5-6 going into the Iron Bowl and still didn't have bowl eligibility locked up, wouldn't that be all the more motivation for them to play out of their minds and score the upset of the year? See, Tiger fans, I'm really looking out for you here.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia wins and holds Auburn to single digits. Again, a reasonable goal for a Bulldog defense that's got plenty to prove at this point. And if we win period, that'd make Matt Stafford the first Georgia QB since Johnny Rauch in the late '40s to take three straight from the Tigers. Whether it's by one point or twenty-something, I'll take it.