Thursday, November 12

Speaking with the enemy: Pickin' the brains of a Plainsman.

This Saturday will mark my 13th straight season of attending the Georgia-Auburn game, for as I mentioned in the game preview, I've always looked forward to this game as one of the friendlier, less bile-infused rivalries on the annual Georgia schedule. Not that I don't want the Dawgs to kick Auburn's ass up and down the field, of course, but as for the fans, there doesn't seem to be nearly the kind of rip-you-limb-from-limb hatred that exists even in a lot of rivalries that haven't lasted nearly as long as this one has (117 years and counting, to be exact).

As an example, I give you one Jerry Hinnen, Auburn grad, War Blog Eagle writer, podcast producer, and all-around stand-up guy. After numerous interactions over the past couple years, it only seemed logical to partner up on a roundtable to mark Georgia-Auburn week; my answers to his questions went up at WBE earlier today, and his answers to my questions can be found below. I think you'll agree we managed to pull this off with mutual respect, worthwhile insight, and minimal aspersions cast on each other's literacy or lack thereof.

1. Maybe I'm being naive here, but one of the reasons I've always liked the Georgia-Auburn rivalry so much is that there seems to be a truly congenial attitude toward the proceedings -- it's a friendly rivalry without the bitterness and nastiness of, say, Auburn-Alabama or Georgia-Florida. Of course, there are always those who disagree (cough Kyle King cough). What's your take on the "personality" of this particular rivalry?

My take is the same as yours and I think it's the same as a lot of Auburn and Georgia fans' -- when you find yourself spending most of the season trading barbs with Tide fans or Gator fans (and occasionally, for a change of pace, LSU fans or Vol fans), trading them with the generally lower-key, less-volatile folks who make up the Dawg (or, if you are not a Tide fan dealing with our regular baiting, Tiger) fanbase is a welcome relief. It also helps from this side of the aisle that Mark Richt -- whatever you think of his football coaching ability, especially here in 2009 -- is basically impossible to hate. Even Evil Richt has mostly saved his shots for the Gators, and Auburn fans (particularly those old enough to remember when the Gators were an annual foe and third only to UGA and 'Bama in rivalry significance) can appreciate that.

Ahh, Evil Richt . . . back when a black uniform accessory meant something (sniff).

That said: It's easy for me to say that when I grew up in rural Alabama and only knew one ostensible Dawg fan in school, and even he gave it up (after years of abuse) before we ever made it to junior high. (He converted to crimson, lousy typical front-running Tide bandwagoneer.) Several commenters at WBE this week who live and work in the Peach State have mentioned that they want a victory over the Dawgs more than they do the Tide, which to me is like saying you'd prefer to have long bank-teller lines eradicated before world hunger. But I think we do have to acknowledge that personal geography does clearly play a role in our football hate or lack thereof.

2. I was stunned to see that Georgia is favored at all in this weekend's game, to say nothing of the fact that the spread opened at five points. Is there some major weakness on the Auburn side of the ledger (or some simmering strength on Georgia's) that I'm completely missing here?

To be honest, I think you're not giving your Dawgs enough credit. Routs thought they might have been, there's a lot less shame in losing to Okie State, Florida, and Crompton 2.0's Tennessee than Kentucky at home. Both our teams played LSU; Georgia had to suffer what's still the worst call in an SEC season threatening to be defined by them to lose to the Bayou Bengals, while Auburn had to score a last-second touchdown to avoid losing by four full scores. The Dawgs beat Arkansas in Fayetteville; Auburn lost up there, and lost badly.

Above: Chris Todd, not enjoying the greater Fayetteville area.

Now, I know you can't just ignore the Tennessee comparison that works in Auburn's favor, the margin-of-defeat in the Dawg losses to the Gators and Vols, the turnover horrors the Dawgs have been inflicting on themselves all season, or that so many different teams have had so much success squaring off against Willie Martinez's defense this season. Still: Looking over the season as a whole, Georgia hasn't been much worse off than Auburn -- the Tigers won their big non-conference test, the Dawgs didn't, and that's about the extent of the gap -- and it doesn't surprise me at all that playing between the hedges, the Dawgs are the Vegas favorite. I don't think it's a matter of hidden strengths or weaknesses; I think it's just a matter of the game being a virtual toss-up and one team being at home.

3. Auburn got off a midseason three-game schneid by throttling Ole Miss and Furman in its last two games. How worried were you during that losing streak, and how confident are you that the Tigers have put it completely behind them?

I'd just about resigned myself to 6-6 during the losing streak; when your team's first-string offense scores 10 points in two weeks and one of those weeks is spent facing Kentucky at home, it's hard to muster up a lot of hope. The Auburn defense was still playing at right around the same adequate-if-hardly-"good" level they'd been at all year, but Chris Todd looked to have completely lost the swagger he'd discovered early in the season (he was particularly wretched against the 'Cats, missing a number of open receivers for simple third-and-short conversions), and with Auburn's inexperienced wideouts the passing game had crumbled to dust around him. You can write off one bad week as a fluke, but three straight? I figured that without a ton of help in the turnover and/or special-teams department, Auburn was headed for .500.

Naturally Todd came out and put up better numbers against the Rebel secondary than any other QB has done this season, then set a single-game Auburn record for completion percentage against Furman (17-of-18, and the miss was a drop). And now Auburn looks like their dangerous original selves again. As for how confident I am that Todd and the offense is back for good . . . I would say "reasonably" confident, since Todd did actually take some baby steps forward vs. LSU (no one noticed, what with his pass protection betraying him and the running game unusually inconsistent) and then built on those the next two weeks. As sharp as he looked against Furman, I'm guessing he'll be competent -- at least -- in Athens. But Todd also showed us midseason that he could revert back to his 2008 form at any time, so it's just a guess -- there's no real telling what we're going to see Saturday.

4. Chris Todd looked awful last season, masterful during Auburn's 5-0 start, horrendous over the ensuing three-game skid, and is back to looking just fine again. Which one is the REAL Chris Todd, for crying out loud, and is that the one we're likely to see on Saturday?

Above: Chris Todd, squaring off against BIZARRO EVIL CHRIS TODD.

Whoops, I kind of just answered that, didn't I? So I'll add this as a kind of bonus to the above: No one factor has been as closely linked to Auburn's success all season as Todd's performance and the success of the Auburn passing game. Auburn has won when the running game has produced and lost when it's produced; they've lost with solid defensive play, won with solid defensive play, won with weak defensive play, lost with weak defensive play; they've struggled mightily in special teams all season long and have won seven games in spite of it.

The one thing that's been markedly different in the seven wins and the three losses: Todd and the passing game. When it's been working, Auburn's won. When it hasn't, Auburn's lost. That such a huge component of Auburn's success can still be such a question mark is on the frustrating side, but it's better than having three or four factors be question marks, I guess.

5. Tennessee, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and now Furman have all scored the majority of their points against Auburn in the second half. In your mind, does that validate preseason concerns about a potential lack of depth on Auburn's defense -- and if so, is it enough that Georgia will actually be able to exploit it, or am I just grasping at straws here?

Well, I think the Ole Miss and Furman "surges" are kind of irrelevant as far as matching up the Auburn D with the Georgia O goes -- the Rebels got 7 of their 14 second-half points on a kick return (meaning the offense scored the same in both halves) and Furman's second-half success came exclusively against a selection of Auburn second- and third-stringers, walk-ons, and even moonlighting offensive players. Georgia's not going to see very many of those guys Saturday, and if the Ole Miss game is any indication, Auburn's defense will actually get stronger as the game goes along (the Rebels failed to score in the fourth quarter despite a pair of drives that started in Auburn territory).

That's not to say that Auburn's defense doesn't have a depth problem, because it absolutely does. With JUCO corner Demond Washington moving into the starting lineup at safety, Auburn now has one -- ONE -- upperclassman on its entire defensive second-string (junior DE Michael Goggans). Everyone else is a freshmen or sophomore, and Auburn will apparently head into the Georgia game with one (one) scholarship linebacker and one (one) scholarship corner on the bench.

Then again, Michael Goggans has been known to make life difficult for some folks.

However: Auburn's proven against Ole Miss (and in a handful of other games) that that won't be a major problem if there's no injuries and the offense is humming along -- the starters are in excellent shape, they've been particularly stingy since weakside linebacker Eltoro Freeman came back from a one-week pseudo-suspension vs. Arkansas and started wrecking fools, and adjusting for the staggering increase in overall number of snaps forced on them by the hyperdrive offense, they've never been as bad as their reputation in some quarters has suggested.

However however: If the offfense stalls repeatedly? Auburn will be in trouble. The Arkansas and Kentucky games have illustrated what happens if the offense (which uses up a stunningly small amount of time in a three-and-out) doesn't get rolling: Eventually the defense will wear down and will give up big chunks of yards and points. The old saying about the best defense being a good offense gets flipped against this Auburn team; the best thing Georgia can do for its offense is to have its defense show up and get a string of stops. And as for injuries, there's simply no adequate replacements if one of the linebackers (or possibly a corner or safety) goes down.


6. So: Gene Chizik. What was your initial reaction to the hire, and how has that impression changed now that the Tigers are 7-3 and doing better than just about anybody expected? What are the most important things he's brought to this program?

I wish I could say I was one of the foresighted Auburn fans who passed on the Chicken Little act when Chizik was hired, but I wasn't. I was as baffled and disappointed and anyone and even a careful combing through of his tenure at Iowa State didn't help much; he was a little unlucky that second year there, but I still don't think there's any way to spin his time in Ames as anything but a failure.

But clearly Chizik had some good ideas he just wasn't able to implement at ISU, like, for instance, hiring Gus Malzahn and Ted Roof and Trooper Taylor and Jeff Grimes and Curtis Luper and Tracy Rocker and Tommy Thigpen. Frankly, those guys are the most important things he's brought to the program.

But that's not to sell Chizik short, since 1) there's an awful lot coaches out there who wouldn't have taken the risk of hiring a weirdo like Malzahn, or been able to sell coaches like Taylor and Thigpen and Luper on making what were just about lateral moves, and 2) if the staff's the best thing he's done, it's not the only thing. The 2008 Auburn team was as dysfunctional and fractured and miserable as college football teams get, and Chizik swept away all that to create a coherent, unified team that clearly enjoys playing together and rooting for each other. There was a moment in fall camp which I don't think has made a lot of waves outside of Auburn, where Kodi Burns responded to the news he'd been passed over for the starting QB job by asking to speak to the team as a whole. He told them he was going to support Todd as the starter, learn whatever role he could to help the team, and ask everyone else to line up behind Todd and the coaches going forward. For a player who'd had no previous connection of any kind to Chizik before his hiring to express that kind of loyalty is a huge credit to Chizik and, in my view, one of the turning points of the season.

7. I'll end things with a fairly obvious question: Which matchup do you see as being the "key" to this game, and which way do you see it breaking?

Above: Mario Fannin, the Auburn player within five yards of whom our defensive backs are least likely to be on Saturday.

Again, going back to the importance of the passing game for Auburn, I think it comes down to the Georgia secondary taking on Todd and the Auburn receivers. (To sum those receivers up briefly: the WRs are Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery, with Adams more the tall possession guy and Zachery the explosive deep threat; Mario Fannin and Eric Smith get a lot of looks from H-back, especially on third down; and every now and then Tommy Trott will pop up from TE, though he mostly blocks on wide running plays these days.) It's not too tough to see Todd having an off game on the road, and if the Tiger receiving crew has had a hell of a year statistically they've also disappeared in a number of games. On paper, guys with as much experience and talent as Prince Miller, Bryan Evans, Brandon Boykin, and Reshad Jones should be able to hold their ground.

But of course it hasn't worked out that way for the Dawgs this year, has it? I don't think Todd's going to explode Crompton-style, but UGA's secondary has been so shaky this season and Malzahn so adept at putting pressure on secondaries like that (or even better ones, like Ole Miss's) that I don't see a Kentucky- or LSU-style sputterfest, either. I think Auburn will make enough hay in the passing game to keep Georgia honest up front, break some big runs, and ride the balance to victory.

But that's all just talk. We'll see Saturday. Good luck, Dawgs.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

i know im splitting hairs here... but why in the world did you use that photo of the uga/au logo at the head of the article? i saw it on ga sports blog as well. There HAS to be something better than that on google images