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Opponent Q&A: Auburn vs Georgia

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Game 6: Toughest test yet.

Syndication: Online Athens Joshua L. Jones / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hey, don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a giant football game in Auburn this weekend, and the Tigers are going to be facing the toughest test of the season. Isn’t it funny? We went to Penn State for the whiteout game for the toughest test of the season, and then we got to try and break a decades old curse for the next toughest test of the season, and now here’s Georgia. This one actually will be the toughest game we’ve played thus far, and may be the most challenging matchup all year. The Bulldogs are as stingy as they come on defense, and throw an absolute hammerstroke on offense with that powerful run game. How can Auburn win? To find out, we’ve asked Macon Dawg over at DawgSports.com to help us understand the 2021 edition of the Georgia Bulldogs.

Is the best quarterback on Georgia’s roster going to start Saturday?

The quarterback who currently gives them the best chance to win definitely will. While JT Daniels has struggled this season with a series of injuries, he’s looked good when he’s been able to go, completing 76% of his passes and averaging 8.0 yards per attempt and 10.5 per completion. He did have one bad read that resulted in a pick against Clemson but otherwise has looked like the quarterback we expected.

If Georgia had really needed him to play more this season I suspect he would have, but Kirby Smart hasn’t been shy about the fact that he wants Daniels healthy for the stretch run of the season. Fortunately, with Stetson Bennett, a fifth year player who’s 5-2 as an SEC starter himself, that’s a decision Smart hasn’t had to make.

A lot of national commentators have poked fun at the fact that Georgia, despite its recruiting prowess, currently finds itself leaning on a 5’10 former walk-on/JUCO transfer at the most important position on the field. It’s frankly an achingly lazy take. Despite splitting time this season Bennett has completed 71% of his passes, and leads the SEC in QBR at 214.77. He’s also run for 85 yards on 10 carries, an offensive dimension that frankly Georgia just doesn’t have when Daniels is in the game. In the modern transfer portal era having a veteran guy like that who can come off the bench is an indescribable luxury.

All of which is to say that Kirby Smart gets paid almost $5 million a year to win football games and yes, he is going to put his best quarterback on the field, and is dang lucky that he has options in that regard.

UGA has 5 running backs with 20+ carries, each with at least one touchdown. Obviously Zamir White is the bellcow, and ample garbage time has allowed the depth some reps. But can you give us a quick cheat sheet of the role each back plays? Should we expect to see all 5?

Georgia sells tailback recruits on the chance to be utilized from the moment they step on campus but not over-utilized. Running backs coach Dell McGee has proven masterful at that over the years (thanks for that, by the way). Zamir “Zeus” White is the putative starter, but at least four of the UGA tailbacks will play in every game, usually rotating series.

White (6’0, 215) is indeed the tough yardage, between the tackles specialist, though sophomore Kendall Milton (6’1, 220) has emerged as a tough runner in his own right. James Cook and Kenny McIntosh are both effective runners but have tended to be used more in the pass game, often flexing outside. McIntosh in particular has had a great year out of the backfield, catching 6 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Daijun Edwards is the fifth stringer, but he’s also played in all five games this season and notched 21 carries himself.

Who’s going to be Auburn’s biggest worry from a receiving standpoint?

If there’s a weakness on this UGA team it is at receiver, despite our best efforts. Georgia’s top receiving threat, George Pickens, tore his ACL in the spring and is practicing but hasn’t been cleared for contact. Dominick Blaylock suffered an ACL year last season and is expected back at some point this season, we just don’t know when. Last year’s leading receiver, Kearis Jackson, is working his way back from offseason knee surgery. Arik Gilbert was slated to boost the receiving corps, but has been out of action. Star tight end Darnell Washington broke his foot in camp and just returned to action last week. And promising sophomores Arian Smith and Jermaine Burton have both been limited due to nagging injuries.

And that’s how Georgia ended up starting two walk-ons and a true freshman at receiver in the opener against Clemson.

Since then we’ve seen some of the above guys work back into the rotation. But we’ve also seen the emergence of a couple of younger guys, especially freshman tight end Brock Bowers. He’s caught 18 passes for 272 yards to lead the team, snagged 4 touchdown passes and run for another from the H-back slot. At 6’5, 230 pounds he’s so far proven too big for most defensive backs to cover one-on-one but also fast enough to just outrun linebackers. More importantly he’s demonstrated great field awareness and finds holes to sit in, especially on the goal line. I’d expect Georgia to go to him a lot, but I’d also expect to see freshman AD Mitchell get some touches. Mitchell got good reviews this spring and found himself thrust into the rotation early due to all the injuries. But he’s quickly gained confidence and is a tough guy to keep contained. I predict he’ll draw at least two pass interference/holding calls in this game.

This is shaping up to be the best defense in college football in several years at least. If you’re going to have success moving the ball, where are the “weak” points, and what’s the ceiling for success for any opposing offense?

Georgia leads the nation in passing defense and is fourth in rushing defense so I think the term “weakness” has to be approached relatively here. But if there is one it may be in the secondary, where the Bulldogs replaced three multi-year starters who are now in the NFL. When quarterbacks have had time to throw downfield in this defense (which has been rare) they’ve had some success beating Georgia’s more inexperienced corners in one-on-one matchups.

Georgia’s given up only one offensive touchdown all season, a fourth quarter garbage time TD pass by South Carolina against the reserves. So I’d say based solely on precedent the ceiling would be “score 10 points.”

But having watched this Auburn offense and knowing Mike Bobo, I expect he’s schemed things up pretty well. And Auburn is significantly more talented on the offensive line, at receiver, and at tailback than anyone Georgia’s faced so far other than maybe Arkansas. Auburn may score as many points as all of the Red and Black’s prior opponents combined: 23.

In Bo Nix terms, is this the year for Kirby? Is he focused and having fun? This has to be national championship or bust, right?

Kirby seems to have really come into his own in some ways as a head coach in the past year. For one he’s allowed Todd Monken to take the destructor plate off the offense a bit more. He’s also taking some calculated risks on special teams, which have been solid under the guidance of (checks notes....adjusts bifocals, checks notes again.....special teams coordinator Will Muschamp).

But he’s also done a great job of keeping this team focused, and the energy level just right for each game. It feels like he knows this team and how to motivate them in a way that’s sometimes hard for new coaches (or heck, most experienced coaches) to master. In doing so he’s avoided any “clunker” games through what was supposed to be the relatively easy portion of the schedule. In the past Georgia teams might have come out flat against a UAB or Vandy or even Arkansas in a noon start. But this team hits the field with its hair on fire every week, and that’s largely down to the head coach.

As to the second part of the question, no, this isn’t a championship or bust year for Georgia. Kirby Smart has stacked top three recruiting classes on top of each other and some of his best in that department are only just now seeing the field. I expect he’ll continue fielding teams that are in the championship hunt for the foreseeable future. Auburn fans know as well as anyone that winning it all takes talent, but it also takes not a little luck. The administration and boosters in Athens are content to give Smart as long as necessary for the talent and luck to coalesce in a title.

If you’re Auburn, how do you attack this team?

Again, I don’t know that Georgia has a glaring defensive weakness. If there is one it may be overpursuit, so I’d try to work in some bootleg passes and counter action. The way Bobo used Shenker and Fromm against LSU, letting them leak out against the Tiger linebackers, might be good for some big plays.

The challenge with this defense however has been stringing enough plays together to get to the end zone. So I also think there’s no recipe for a victory that doesn’t involve the Plainsmen taking advantage of one or two short fields as well.

Finally, the Tigers absolutely cannot turn the ball over. Every Georgia game that has gotten out of hand this season (which at this point is every one except Clemson) got that way when Georgia scored quickly off a turnover. Also, the margin of victory in that Clemson game was a pick six given up by DJ Uiagalelei. If Auburn is -2 or worse in the turnover department, this one could get out of hand.

Prediction?

I foresee a close first half, with a juiced up Auburn crowd playing a big part in the game. But ultimately I think Bo Nix throws his first and second interceptions of the season or gets carted off the field when he extends a play just a little too long against a swarming Bulldog defense.

Ultimately I think the talented Auburn defense may just end up spending too much time in the field and give up some points in the second half to let this one just slip away. Prediction: Georgia 34, Auburn 27.

Auburn and Georgia kick off at 2:30 pm CST/3:30 pm EST on CBS this Saturday! War Eagle!