Best returning quarterback in the league?
War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On November12th, Auburn travels after a bye week to Athens to take on the Georgia Bulldogs. It's a different look to Auburn's schedule this year, as the Tigers usually have their off week just before the Iron Bowl. Trips to Athens haven't been kind to the Tigers lately. Historically, Auburn has done well on the road against Georgia, but the Tigers have lost 3 of the last 4 in Athens.
While Auburn enters this game after a bye week, they'll have played nine weeks in a row before that. The Tigers will have played Utah State, Mississippi State, at Clemson, Florida Atlantic, at South Carolina, at Arkansas, Florida, at LSU and Ole Miss. Georgia has a near-off week before this clash, tuning up on New Mexico State prior to the Auburn game. Georgia usually plays one of the tougher out of conference schedules, and this year is no exception. Georgia opens with Boise State in Atlanta, then South Carolina, Coastal Carolina, at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, at Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, then an off week. After the break, the Bulldogs have Florida in Jacksonville, New Mexico State then Auburn. Georgia's season closes out after playing Auburn with Kentucky, and Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
It's been something of a year of turmoil for the Bulldogs. After last season's 6-7 finish, Bulldog supporters are restless. Head coach Mark Richt and his staff pulled in a great recruiting class, but attrition and injuries mean that many newcomers will have to play right away. There seems to be new injury news out of Athens every week. Particularly hard-hit has been the offensive line. Only two starters return on a unit that had its struggles a year ago, and several backups the Bulldogs were counting on have departed as well. Prior to spring drills, the Bulldogs expected to be deep at running back, but the top two guys (Washaun Ealey and Caleb King) were gone before summer. Now in the first two weeks of camp, two of the remaining tailbacks are nursing injuries, including 5-star signee Isaiah Crowell.
It's not all gloom and doom for the Bulldogs, however. Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray is widely being hailed as the best returning quarterback in the SEC. Junior Orson Charles leads a talented tight end corps. While it will be tough to replace wide receiver A. J. Green, the Dawgs do have talent waiting in the wings. Juniors Tavarres King and Marlon Brown are the sort of tall, rangy receivers that gave Auburn fits last season. Running back injuries aside, I think the real key to Georgia's success this season on offense will be the play of the line. Many folks seem to think former line coach Stacy Searles underachieved in Athens the past few years. Searles was hired away by Texas, and his replacement is former Bama player Will Friend. Friend has his work cut out, as the Bulldogs are still trying to piece together a cohesive unit.
The Bulldog defense should show improvement in year two of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme. Grantham now has the big nose tackle that makes such a defense go. Sophomore Kwame Geathers is a huge and disruptive presence in the middle, much like Alabama's Terrence Cody was a couple of years ago. From what I saw of UGA's spring game, Geathers abused the Bulldog interior offensive line. Grantham played a lot of young linebackers a year ago, and this year the Bulldogs will be rewarded with an experienced bunch that is big and fast. Where UGA has suffered in recent years on defense has been the secondary. Most of the projected starters sat out the spring game, and it's still a concern. Juniors Brandon Boykin and Baccarri Rambo are experienced, but must heal up and stay on the field.
Georgia might have the best all-around special teams in the league. It's difficult to find a weak point. Their return yards aren't spectacular, but returners Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith are solid and experienced. Senior kicker Blair Walsh and senior punter Drew Butler are among the league's best. Georgia coverage was among the league leaders last season, and with an influx of talented signees, should be again.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Georgia offensive line: Auburn had apparent problems in the A-Day game at defensive tackle but by the time of this game, true sophomores Jeffery Whitacker and Kenneth Carter will have had most of a season to gain experience. The Auburn defense is most dangerous at defensive end, led by Nosa Eguae, Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier. It's still just a guess what the Georgia starting lineup will be by November. Veteran senior Cordy Glenn should make a good left tackle, and senior Ben Jones should make a serviceable center. Right now, one can pencil in senior Justin Anderson at right tackle, and sophomores Chris Burnette and Kenarious Gates at guard. It's worth noting that the line above averages 327 pounds. I suspect this will be a more favorable matchup for Auburn's young tackles than some other SEC games. Auburn's quick ends will be a problem for Georgia's huge tackles. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Georgia backs: Auburn returning linebackers Darren Bates, Eltoro Freeman and Jonathan Evans have experience shutting down big-time SEC backs. They, along with new starting middle linebacker Jake Holland should be capable of playing with whatever backs Georgia goes with. Right now, junior converted linebacker Richard Samuel is atop the depth chart. He's a 238 pound load. Freshman Ken Malcomb is also a power back. True freshman Isaiah Crowell expects to have an impact similar to Marcus Lattimore, but that remains to be seen. Junior Carlton Thomas is a small speed burner, but had fumble problems in the G-Day game. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Georgia receivers: Auburn projected starters T'Sharvan Bell and Chris Davis got extensive experience off the bench last season, and Jonathan Mincy is pushing the starters hard in preseason practice. As mentioned above, Georgia has size at wide receiver with Tavarres King and Marlon Brown. Senior Israel Troupe adds experience. Georgia also has an impressive freshman class coming in. Expect the Bulldogs to spread the wealth around. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Georgia secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn will field a new/old tandem this fall at safety: converted corner Neiko Thorpe and sophomore Demetruce McNeal. Thorpe has played a lot of football in the past three years, and by all accounts is making a very successful transition to safety, where he's more suited. McNeal is fast and is a ferocious hitter, but only has spot duty last season on his resume. Keep an eye on freshman Enrique Florence. The coaches can't keep him away from making big plays on the ball. Georgia will run some spread looks with 3 and 4 wide receiver sets from time to time, but the go-to guy here is junior tight end Orson Charles, who should have a great year. It's also worth noting that the starting fullback is 272 pound senior Bruce Figgins, a converted tight end. Figgins snagged a couple of balls in the G-Day game, and figures to be a receiving option this season. Aaron Murray will be difficult to read and stop, especially for two new starters at safety. Last year, Murray had lots of early success, and only hits from the defensive line slowed him down in the second half. Auburn once again could really use help from a good pass rush. Advantage: Georgia.
Punting: Auburn will field sophomore Steven Clark, who had a several shaky starts last fall. If the A-Day game is any indication, Clark will boast a much stronger leg this fall. Georgia senior Drew Butler who boomed his punts for a 44.5 yard average, and killed a third of them inside the opponent's 20 yard line. Auburn's still unsettled as to who will return punts, and had fumble problems back there the past two seasons. Georgia junior Branden Smith averaged 14.3 yards per return last season. Auburn gave up 4.5 yards per return in 2010, and Georgia gave up 5.1. Advantage: Georgia.
Kickoffs: Auburn sophomore Cody Parkey was used about a third of the time last season, and he averaged 63.2 yards per kickoff. By several accounts, Parkey is having a monster fall camp. Senior Blair Walsh averaged 65.9 yards per kickoff with 12 touchbacks. Auburn's Onterio McCalebb figures to be the primary kick returner. McCalebb averaged 28.4 yards per return in 2010. Georgia junior Brandon Boykin averaged 24.3 yards per return. Auburn coverage gave up 19.7 yards per return, Georgia gave up 19.5. Advantage: Georgia, on experience.
Place kicking: Sophomore Cody Parkey takes over as the Auburn kicker. His only college experience is a couple of extra points kicked late in the Homecoming game. Parkey is said to have had a good spring, and has been very accurate in fall camp as well. Georgia senior Blair Walsh has hit 55 out of 68 field goals in his career, and is a 4 year starter. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn offensive line vs. Georgia defensive line: Auburn came out of spring with sophomore Blake Burgess starting at center, but he's in a neck and neck race with true freshman Reese Dismukes. Senior Jared Cooper and junior John Sullen are penciled in at the guard slots. Only Sullen has significant front-line playing time inside. Tackles will be seniors Brandon Mosley and A. J. Greene, if Greene gets over a nagging injury he's had in fall camp. Three or four talented freshmen are pushing the starters hard, and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes says that only Mosley's job is safe. After getting pushed around some last season, Georgia has some huge bodies this year on the defensive line. Sophomore nose tackle Kwame Geathers weighs in at 350 pounds. Junior end Abry Jones weighs 309, and senior end DeAngelo Tyson weighs 306. There are several more reserves in the 290 pound range. When Georgia needs a 4th man up front, 269 pound junior Cornelius Washington will be called on. This will be an awfully tough unit to handle. If Auburn is forced into double teaming, it will leave multiple folks in the back seven free to prey on the running game. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn backs vs. Georgia linebackers: The Auburn Tigers return the one-two punch of freshman All-American Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb at running back, and in practice incoming freshman Tre Mason has by all accounts been tearing it up on the ground. With the exception of juniors Christian Robinson and Cornelius Washington, the Georgia linebackers look like a green bunch. Robinson and Washington started 19 games between them last season. Sophomore Jarvis Jones is a transfer from Southern Cal. He was having a phenomenal freshman season in 2009 before he was injured. He's sat out the required year, and has made some noise in practice this season. Sophomore Alec Ogletree is a converted safety, and he's been making plays in camp also. Sophomore Chase Vasser is a talented tackler the Bulldogs can bring off the bench. These guys are all good sized linebackers who can run. They question is how they'll fare against Auburn's trapping plays, and blazingly fast runners. The dogs had quite a bit of difficulty last season corralling the Auburn backs. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Georgia corners: Auburn will rely heavily on returning veteran Emory Blake, and intriguing prospects DeAngelo Benton and Quindarius Carr. The speedy redshirt freshman Trovon Reed has been having a great fall camp, and may supplant one of the veterans at an outside position. Georgia's corner duo of juniors Brandon Boykin and Sanders Commings are veterans who combined for 6 interceptions and 5 passes broken up. They are capable and experienced, and last season held Adams and Zachary to 5 catches for 44 yards. Both missed the G-day game with injuries, and their replacements gave up a good many completions. If healthy, Georgia has a real experience edge here. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Georgia safeties: Auburn's most notable returning secondary receiver is tight end/h-back Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who was a clutch go-to guy last year. About half of his catches resulted in touchdowns. The Tigers also have options from the speedy Trovon Reed to the 290 pound H-Back LaDarius Phillips. Auburn is still in the midst of a quarterback race, but junior Barrett Trotter seems to have the upper hand at this point. Regardless of whether Trotter or sophomore Clint Moseley start, Auburn will field a quarterback with three year's worth of experience practicing the Gus Malzhan offensive system. Junior Bacarri Rambo is a veteran, but he had his problems last season in coverage. The Bulldogs are still trying to settle on their other safety spot. Junior Shawn Williams might have the upper hand. Georgia definitely needs more production and less center-field observing from this bunch. Advantage: Auburn.
This could be a much lower-scoring matchup this season, compared to last year. Both defenses expect to take a step forward, and there are questions up front on offense on both sides. Auburn appears to have more offensive play makers, but Georgia has the quarterback experience advantage. Georgia also has fewer issues to work out on special teams. Georgia has the home field advantage, but historically that advantage has meant little in this series.
Tallying up things on paper, Georgia is a more experienced team with a definite edge on special teams, and they are at home. Ordinarily, one would probably figure a ten point win or more. However, there is a lot more pressure on the Bulldogs. They are fighting for their coaches' jobs. Auburn isn't expected to do much, and Gene Chizik isn't getting fired even if he goes 3-9. Should Georgia drop the Boise and USC games right out of the gate, they could easily tailspin the rest of the season. Since Knowshon Moreno left, the Dawgs have struggled to maintain a consistent running game. With the attrition and injuries they've had thus far this season, and the least deep O-line in a decade, one could see Georgia becoming one-dimensional. A team without a consistent running game exposes their quarterback to additional hits. Georgia can't afford many more injuries on offense.
Auburn is a younger team than Georgia, but by mid November those young guys should be more seasoned, and will be playing hard to position themselves for a run at glory in 2012. I think Georgia is likely to enter this game with a lame-duck coach, unless they have great injury luck going forward. I see losses to Boise and USC as probable, and they'll probably split with the two Mississippi teams. Richt has never had much luck against Florida, and could come into the Auburn game at 5-4. It could be worse, if Ole Miss or Tennessee pulls the upset.
Prediction: A rested Auburn team barges into Sanford Stadium and subdues a battered Georgia offense. A few big plays give the Tigers a 20-10 win over the Bulldogs.