Thursday, November 12

What happens in Vegas stays (for now) in Vegas: The Auburn preview.

God, this picture never gets old.

Hometown: Auburn, Alabama.

Last season: After all the turmoil on the Plains last season, it's almost hard to remember they were knocking on the door of the top 10 in the preseason rankings and started 4-1, but the writing seemed to be on the wall with respect to Tony Franklin's newly installed spread offense after the legendary 3-2 win at Mississippi State and a sluggish 14-12 win over equally offensively challenged Tennessee. The week after the UT win, Auburn lost by a point at Vandy and showed Franklin the door; they proceeded to win only one game the rest of the season, a 37-20 victory over DI-AA Tennessee-Martin. Closed out the year with a 36-0 thrashing from Alabama, their first loss to the Crimson Tide in seven seasons, and finished the year 5-7 (2-6 SEC), next-to-last in the Western Division, bowlless, and unranked. Tommy Tuberville "resigned" four days after the loss to Bama.

This season: Despite spending nearly the entire off-season getting cackled at by the rest of the SEC for having hired Gene "5-19" Chizik to replace Tuberville, Auburn blazed into the season with a 5-0 start and crept as high as 17th in the AP poll before going on a three-game skid against Arkansas, Kentucky, and LSU. Got back on track with back-to-back home wins over Ole Miss and Furman; still sitting just outside the AP rankings but made it to 25th in the coaches' poll. Currently 7-3, 3-3 in the SEC.

Hate index, 1 being Oscar Meyer, 10 being Urban Meyer: Four. I've made too many really good friends of the Auburn persuasion -- and dated far too many Auburn coeds/alumnae -- to gin up the same kind of hate for them that, say, Kyle King has. Then again, a three-year winning streak over a given rival will do that. If we lose to them this weekend, this shit's back up to eight or nine, depending on how dickish they are about it.

Associated hottie: Anyone scratching their head as to why I'd be so stuck on Auburn girls need only view cheerleader Kristin Ellington as a representative example of the female talent on the Plains. In my experience, at least, Auburn is one of the few places that can completely hold their own with Georgia, Ole Miss, and Alabama in that category. Tigers, I salute thee:

What excites me: Call me crazy, but the stars (some of them, at least) seem to be aligning for a big showing by the Georgia offense this weekend -- which would be our first meaningful offensive explosion since unloading 52 on the Razorbacks in Fayetteville a couple months ago. First off, Stacy Searels finally seems to have found a workable combination on the offensive line, and Washaun Ealey has looked better and better running behind it; between him and Caleb King, Georgia should be able to switch up the pace fairly effectively and run right at the nation's 93d-ranked rushing defense. The addition of some "Wild Dawg" formations involving Branden Smith taking some direct snaps should be another wrinkle for Auburn to contend with.

That should open things up for Joe Cox, who gets A.J. Green back for this game, thank God. Even the improving running game didn't provide much cover for Cox against the superb pass defenses of Vanderbilt and Florida, so one would be wise to temper expectations here, but Auburn's young secondary has been hit hard by injuries of late; their two starting safeties will be a true freshman (Darren Bates) and a sophomore playing only his second game at safety (Demond Washington). Even if Ted Roof's defense blankets A.J. -- which all reports indicate he will -- Cox might have some success throwing mid-range passes over the middle to guys like Tavarres King, Orson Charles, or Aron White.

Finally, Georgia has some big advantages on special teams, starting with the punting game -- Drew Butler continues to lead the nation in punting with nearly 50 yards per kick, while Auburn's punt-return unit is the nation's seventh-worst, averaging just 3.75 yards per return. So if we have to punt it away, we at least stand to hold our ground in the field-position battle. Auburn has also struggled to defend kickoffs (101st in the nation, allowing 23.7 yards per return) and punts (83rd, 10.8), so there's reason to hold out hope for another big runback from Brandon Boykin this weekend.

That was fun, wasn't it? Let's see if Boykin can make it a hat trick.

What worries me: And I, for one, will be happy to take our points however we can get them, because we'll need them to keep up with Auburn's spread attack. After the dismal stretch against Arkansas, Kentucky, and LSU, in which he completed just half his passes for 260 total yards, no TDs, and two picks, Chris Todd has bounced back in his last two games against Ole Miss and Furman; the Tiger running game remained fairly strong even through the midseason skid. Gus Malzahn is sure to keep the pace brisk and to employ many of the same kinds of play-action and misdirection plays that Tennessee murdered us with a month ago, and one dominating performance against a lousy I-AA outfit isn't enough to give me confidence that Willie Martinez has somehow figured out how to defend them.

Of all the miraculous changes that have taken place on the Plains since Tommy Tuberville left town, the transformation of Chris Todd from noodle-armed schlub to confident assassin has probably been the most amazing. Yes, he had that awful midseason stretch, and yes, his biggest games have come at home against defenses one would not exactly describe as impregnable. But Malzahn has found a way to use Todd very effectively, picking away at defenses with exactly the same kind of short-to-medium passes that both Stephen Garcia and Jonathan Crompton stuck with until they'd become two of only four QBs ever to pass for more than 300 yards against a Mark Richt defense. I don't know if Todd will become the fifth, but I gotta say it wouldn't surprise me, unless either our D-line manages to penetrate an Auburn offensive front that's allowed only 12 sacks all season or our secondary gets loads, loads, loads better. (Perhaps by starting Bacarri Rambo this week? Oh, silly me, I was assuming Martinez might start players based on actual on-the-field production rather than mere seniority. Won't happen again, I assure you.)

"Bacarri? Oh, I put him over there. Really ties the sideline together, don't you think?"

Intangibles? Well, Auburn's last two head coaches managed to beat Georgia in their first year on the Plains, and Tommy Tuberville managed to do it in a night game in Athens with a team that would finish the year just 5-6; I hope I don't need to remind anyone what a nightmare that was. There's also the matter of the old "home-field disadvantage" in this series, which has involved the road team winning or tying 24 of the last 33 games and 13 of the last 17. The home and visiting teams have split the last six, so it's possible that this weird semi-curse might be petering out a bit, but be that as it may, Auburn's 12 wins in their last 16 visits are generally enough to induce heartburn in the Georgia fanbase every time mid-November rolls around in an odd-numbered year.

Player who needs to have a big game: CB Brandon Boykin. Brandon? Doug Gillett here. Hey, remember those two kickoff returns you had for TDs against South Carolina and Tennessee? Well, we're gonna need a bunch of points against Auburn this weekend, so if you could dial up another one of those that'd be great. Wait, wait, I'm not done. You're one of the few people in our secondary who seem to have any idea what the hell is going on at any given moment, so I'm gonna need you to have an awesome day on defense, too. We don't seem to be doing a real job of having anybody within five yards of intended receivers on pass plays -- yeah, yeah, I know, we're gonna have a long talk with Coach Martinez about that -- so if you could just give us a hand there, that'd be great too. Mmmkay? Terrific. And I'll get you another copy of that memo.

What does it all mean? I don't believe "gobsmacked" is too strong a word for my reaction upon finding out that Georgia opened as a five-point favorite in this game (since ratcheted down to four and a half, depending on which handicapper you ask). Georgia's only two wins in the last month and a half have been over the consensus worst team in the SEC and a DI-AA team that isn't even all that competitive in DI-AA; we've been demonstrating slow, incremental improvement in a few areas, particularly on offense, but nothing that has yet made a difference against a credible opponent. Perhaps the oddsmakers know something I don't, and that would be fine with me.

But here's what I do know: I know I have almost zero confidence in Willie Martinez's ability to successfully outscheme Auburn's offense, which, even after last month's embarrassing three-game skid, is still ranked 11th in the nation (and second in the SEC) with 35 points per game. I've read a number of different descriptions of how Gus Malzahn is likely to game-plan this weekend's contest, and the number of times I've seen comparisons to Tennessee's scheme is frankly terrifying. Our run defense has been pretty solid, but just happens to match up with the relatively unheralded strength of Auburn's offense, a running game that's ranked 10th in the nation (230 yards per game); the less said about our pass defense, meanwhile, the better. Three years ago, a Georgia team floundering every bit as badly as this year's (remember, at least we managed to beat Vandy this time around) headed to Auburn and inexplicably blew the doors off a Tiger team ranked fifth in the nation, so there is a precedent for the Dawgs making a big (and completely unexpected) turnaround just in time for this game. But I don't know that I can bring myself to bet on that kind of lightning striking twice against the same opponent.

Where have you gone, Tra Battle? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Here's what does give me hope: If Georgia can pull some offensive tricks out of its ass, maybe spring Brandon Boykin for a big return or two, and hang with Auburn on the scoreboard through the first half, we've got a chance. This weekend, the Tigers will be playing their 11th straight Saturday without a bye, so they're bound to be tired, and the lack of defensive depth that I heard some people fretting about in the preseason is only going to be that much bigger a factor. You've seen it reflected on the scoreboard already: Over their last seven games, Auburn's opponents have collectively scored 37 points in the first quarter and second quarter, 55 in the third, and a whopping 67 in the second. The thing that first tipped me to this trend was Furman scoring 28 of their 31 points after halftime, and even then my first reaction was "Whatever, it was Furman" -- but War Blog Eagle mastermind and Five for Slive partner-in-crime Jerry Hinnen (whose half of our Georgia-Auburn Q&A exchange will go up here later on today) has assured me that the Auburn defense's habit of running out of gas in the second half has become a real worry. Sixteen points in the fourth quarter to Tennessee (nearly allowing the Vols to come back and win the thing), fourteen in the fourth quarter to Kentucky (which did allow them to come back and win) -- maybe this thing is going to be a real game for four whole quarters after all.

Even then, though, I'm still just not confident in our defense's ability to make the critical late stops against Malzahn's offense. Nor am I confident that we'll come out ahead in the turnover margin. Joe Cox was pick-free against Tennessee Tech last week, but he's still thrown at least one interception to every DI-A opponent we've faced in 2009; Chris Todd, meanwhile, has thrown only three picks all season, two of them coming in the midseason skid that he's given every indication of having steered out of. Overall, Auburn is only so-so in that category with a modest +4 margin on the year, but Georgia continues to be godawful, next-to-last in the country, in fact, at a stunning -16. You think we're gonna manage to cough up a few to Auburn this weekend? Yeah, me too. We appear to have cured our early-season fumble-itis, at least -- after coughing up seven fumbles in the first four games, we've only lost one in the past five -- but I'm still steeling myself for at least a couple of our passes to end up in the wrong team's hands.

Red jerseys ours, white jerseys theirs. Red jerseys ours, white jerseys . . .

Somehow I see this game following a script similar to the one for the South Carolina, Arkansas, and Arizona State games early in the season: Early turnover puts Georgia in the hole, offense shakes it off, we hang with the Tigers for the next three quarters. But a late turnover seals the deal for the Tigers. The final score should look very South Carolina-esque, only this time I don't think we end up on the side with the bigger number. I think we'll get a good day from Cox and an even better one from the running game; I just don't think it's going to be enough to overcome the inevitable evisceration of Willie Martinez's soft zone.

But again, maybe the guys in the back rooms in Vegas know something I don't; as my picks record on EDSBS this year should indicate, they usually do. This time around, nothing would make me happier.

If you're trash-talking: It all starts with "three in a row, bitches," doesn't it? Some reference to "5-19 Gene" is also in order, I'm sure.

But should you get a "War Damn Eagle" from an Auburn zealot, instead of trash-talking them back, I think it's time you sat down and had a conversation with them. A conversation about the finer points of swearing. The "War Damn Eagle" cry has always rubbed me the wrong way because "damn" isn't one of those curse words you can just drop in between any two words you please, like "fuckin'." Here's a scene from one of the greatest Mafia movies of all time, "Goodfellas":

Jimmy Conway: What's the fuckin' matter with you? What -- what is the fuckin' matter with you? What are you, stupid or what? Tommy, Tommy, I'm kidding with you. What the fuck are you doin'? What are you, a fuckin' sick maniac?

Tommy DeVito: How am I meant to know you're kidding? What you mean, you're kidding? You breaking my fuckin' balls?

Jimmy Conway: I'm fuckin' kidding with you! You fuckin' shoot the guy?

Henry Hill: He's dead.

Tommy DeVito: Good shot. What do you want from me? Good shot. Fuckin' rat anyway. His family's all rats. He'll grow up to be a rat.

Jimmy Conway: You stupid bastard, I can't fuckin' believe you. Now, you're gonna dig the fuckin' thing now. You're gonna dig the hole. You're gonna do it. I got no fuckin' lime. You're gonna do it.

Tommy DeVito: Who the fuck cares? I'll dig the fuckin' hole. I don't give a fuck. What is it, the first hole I dug? Not the first time I dug a hole. I'll fuckin' dig a hole. Where are the shovels?

Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination (among others) for that flick, but here's how an Auburn fan would've written it:

Jimmy Conway: What's the damn matter with you? What -- what is the damn matter with you? What are you, stupid or what? Tommy, Tommy, I'm kidding with you. What the damn are you doin'? What are you, a damn sick maniac?

Tommy DeVito: How am I meant to know you're kidding? What you mean, you're kidding? You breaking my damn balls?

Jimmy Conway: I'm damn kidding with you! You damn shoot the guy?

Henry Hill: He's dead.

Tommy DeVito: Good shot. What do you want from me? Good shot. Damn rat anyway. His family's all rats. He'll grow up to be a rat.

Jimmy Conway: You stupid bastard, I can't damn believe you. Now, you're gonna dig the damn thing now. You're gonna dig the hole. You're gonna do it. I got no damn lime. You're gonna do it.

Tommy DeVito: Who the damn cares? I'll dig the damn hole. I don't give a damn. What is it, the first hole I dug? Not the first time I dug a hole. I'll damn dig a hole. Where are the shovels?

That just sounds retarded. Auburn fans, step up your cursing game. You're in the SEC, for fuck's sake.

I will run up and down the street in front of my house wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia wins, period. Vegas thinks we're better than Auburn? Might as well prove 'em right, then. That would make us bowl-eligible (woo!) and send our seniors out as the first class since 1948 to graduate without ever having lost to the Tigers. Both of these things I will gladly take.

1 comment:

Will said...

That "only 4 QBs to top 300 yards" can't be correct though can it?

I mean Mallet had 400+ this season too...and Grossman had 424 in 2001.

Surely there've been a few other 300+ yd passing days (I'm thinking maybe the 2006 UT game but I don't want to actually think too much about that game.)