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Game Preview and Open Thread - #12 Auburn vs #4 Georgia

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Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, hate factor engage.

With today bringing us another edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, which has soured in recent years from the brotherly gathering it used to be to a tense, acidulated affair, it’s hard to see if a game has mattered more for different reasons.

Georgia recently moved into the College Football Playoff top four.

Auburn still has a (remote) chance to win the SEC West, but the Tigers would need LSU to lose out at the very least for that to materialize.

Also, it’s not a stretch to say that Gus Malzahn hangs on this game today.

There’s a portion of the fanbase that would love a reason to sever ties with Gus, whether that comes in the form of a firing or a mutually-beneficial departure. Another loss to Georgia would give that group more fire and more ammo. Some of Gus’ most egregious sins have come at the hands of Bulldog teams that probably weren’t as good as Auburn. 2014 was a listless effort after the loss to Texas A&M, while 2015 and 2016 were tepid offensive outputs to teams that we should have had no trouble beating.

Gus needs this win, Auburn needs this win, and it’ll happen.

This November’s situation mirrors the November of 2017 quite similarly. Auburn was twice burned then, too, and staring the prospect of a pair of top five teams coming in for Amen Corner. It started with Georgia, featuring Jake Fromm and a slew of talented backs and receivers. They left Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 40-17 defeat before Alabama went home two weeks later on the hells of a 12-point dispatching.

Auburn’s been good at home this season. Much better than the road. Both losses came to teams with a combined 17-2 record, and that includes the best effort anyone’s given to LSU (at their place nonetheless). Bo Nix’s control of the game in Auburn has been fantastic, even though the home competition hasn’t been. All of Auburn’s tough games have come on the road. Today’s the first time that we get a big opponent between our hedges.

WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL

It’s not much of a secret that Auburn has struggled to run the ball. Our failures in that department have been pretty well documented this season, and it’s all due to a combination of factors:

  • Poor offensive line play
  • An uncertain running back rotation
  • Teams daring Bo Nix to throw

Auburn made a change late in the LSU game with Kaleb Kim snapping the ball past Nix, so Nick Brahms got to get back into the game at center. It didn’t really help much in the run-blocking game last time out against Ole Miss, with the Tigers going for just 167 yards on 46 carries, but that game might have been more tilted to making sure that Nix got into rhythm in the passing game.

The emergence of D.J. Williams has been a revelation lately, and he’s clearly Auburn’s most talented back, but the return of a healthy Boobee Whitlow should give the Tigers a pretty steady punch at the position. Harold Joiner’s increased work with wheel routes and higher carries can only pay dividends as well. In the end, Auburn probably can’t treat this game as a chance to run like they’d really want to — up the middle. Count screens as running plays, start things at the boundary, look for room, just not in the middle. It’s gonna be crowded.

When Auburn does try to throw, it needs to be an attack that utilizes some of the same concepts that we’ve seen from opponents. Slants, crossers, that sort of thing. Alabama got gashed in the middle of the field last week, so we know that’ll be a thing in two weeks, but Auburn spread the ball around a little more against Ole Miss. Anthony Schwartz had 9 catches, Seth Williams 6, Eli Stove 5, and nine total receivers caught a pass. Nix completed 30 balls in the slim win.

The secret today? It’s not really deep. Involve the playmakers in space. Georgia can’t keep up with Schwartz going across the middle. They likely don’t have a guy who can cover Jay Jay Wilson if he lines up in the backfield. When those connections come to fruition, it means that Seth Williams will get a one-on-one chance.

I don’t know if either side will turn out more than 24 points today, and the game will likely hinge on which side hits the big play or which defense busts twice rather than just once. Auburn has to figure out a way to needle into that crease and twist the knife to get the killshot.

WHEN GEORGIA HAS THE BALL

Jake Fromm, D’Andre Swift, Lawrence Cager, George Pickens... there’s a heck of a lot of talent for a team that hasn’t been able to score like they should. Of course, this will probably be the game when they turn it all around and start to dazzle us all with hitherto unseen points and yardage.

Georgia beat up on some nobodies to begin the year, but only managed 23 against Notre Dame under the Kenny Rogers Roasters laser show. After that, it’s been 17 points in the loss to South Carolina, 21 in a win over Kentucky (during which Jake Fromm threw for only 35 yards), 24 in the win over Florida, and 27 in the win over Missouri. They’re not performing.

Now, they’re going to come into Jordan-Hare Stadium with a couple of banged up centers and a hobbled Cager. The pro-style attack has the propensity to bust a big play, whether that’s Swift getting loose (seen it a couple times, no thanks), or a deep ball to one of the big receivers. With a week off, I can only imagine that Kevin Steele has cooked up something gnarly for this game. He created that 3-1-7 scheme the week of the LSU game and help them to 23 points. Georgia’s been much more plain jane than the Tigers.

With the issues at center, Auburn needs their weekly Defensive Linemen of the Week Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson to blow the middle of the line up. If there’s one spot where the Tigers have the distinct advantage, it’s the middle of the lines.

Hit Jake Fromm, stuff the run, limit the big plays. It’s not a complicated plan for success, but when you’re playing a team as talented as the Bulldogs, it’s tough to accomplish. What we don’t need is for Georgia’s coaching staff to wake up and realize that they can play 2019 football instead of 2003 football.

WHAT TODAY MEANS FOR AUBURN

We touched on it above, but Gus Malzahn’s legacy has been downgraded based on a few games in his career. Georgia 2014, 2015, and 2016 are all high on that list. Winning today to effectively ruin the Bulldogs’ chance to get into the College Football Playoff would be a feather in the cap to erase one of his permanent record black marks.

There’s been so much talk about what constitutes a successful season for Auburn. 8-4 isn’t it. 9-3 is a good year. 10-2 is a great year. With this schedule, you just had to take out one of the top ten teams that you’ll play to make people pretty satisfied. There’s the talk that we’re wasting this defense, but we’ve still got two huge games left. Auburn will finish with 8 wins minimum, but there’s a chance for 10 wins or more. This season’s legacy — and to an extension, Gus’ — is still completely up for grabs.

It always feels good to beat Georgia, and it always feels bad to lose to them. In the vacuum of today, let’s just beat Georgia. War Eagle.