Auburn vs. Georgia Complete Game Preview
AUBURN, Ala. — Throughout the preseason and for a few weeks into the 2014 campaign, the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry—the first since "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare"—had a great chance at being a preview of the SEC Championship Game or a big-time elimination clash in the College Football Playoff.
But the stakes surrounding Saturday night's matchup between longtime rivals Auburn (7-2, 4-2 SEC) and Georgia (7-2, 5-2 SEC) are much lower now after each side lost a divisional game it was heavily favored to win.
The Tigers come into Sanford Stadium, a venue in which they have lost four of their five road meetings with the Bulldogs, off a disastrous 41-38 home loss to what had been a struggling Texas A&M team. Auburn's offense continued its impressive streak of gaining lots of yardage and points, but a couple of late fumbles ended a furious comeback effort that was caused by another horrific start by the defense.
Georgia, on the other hand, rebounded from its stunning loss to Florida with a 63-31 thumping of Kentucky in Lexington. Quarterback Hutson Mason had a career day against the Wildcats and set the tone for what could be another big offensive performance this Saturday night—a game that will see the return of superstar running back and former Heisman finalist Todd Gurley from his NCAA-mandated suspension.
Before we get to the full breakdown of the 118th edition of this ferocious rivalry series, here is all the basic info you need to know:
Auburn Keys to Victory
Avoid the Slow Start
It's becoming a habit to say this almost every time Auburn plays a big game, but it still rings true—the Tigers' two losses have featured early holes caused by bad defensive play and an offensive miscue or two.
Although Auburn rallied back from an extremely early 14-0 deficit to Texas A&M last Saturday afternoon, the slow defensive start continued through the entire first half. When you combine that with a bad drive from an offense that seems to have to lead the way each week, the results can be devastating.
Away from home against a balanced and explosive offense that will get a shot in the arm with the return of Gurley, Auburn will especially need to prevent an early deficit. This game might turn into a shootout, but the Tigers will want it to be because both sides are trading equal punches throughout the game.
Tackling, Tackling, Tackling
Missed assignments have been a huge problem for Auburn's secondary through the last few games, but missed tackles from the entire defense have been even worse.
"I think we had 11 [missed tackles] that added up to 114 yards, something of that nature, and that’s a lot of yardage," Johnson said Sunday night. "Of course, you’re going to miss some on great players, but if you eliminate half of that, it will get you off the field quicker, get your offense the ball quicker, helps field position and everything."
Georgia won't spread things out as much as Texas A&M did last Saturday, but they have plenty of players who can make big plays in space—and they showed it against Kentucky. Missed tackles will happen, but Auburn needs them to decrease in a big way against the Bulldogs.
Keep Grinding on the Ground
On the offensive side of the ball, Auburn knows what it needs to do.
Even when his team faced a multi-touchdown deficit to the Aggies, Malzahn stuck to the ground game, and the Tigers clawed their way back into the game. Senior running back Cameron Artis-Payne extended his lead atop the SEC charts with a career-high 221 yards and two touchdowns, and senior quarterback Nick Marshall added a pair of touchdowns in the loss to Texas A&M.
If the Tigers can hold on to the ball—Auburn has turned it over seven times in seven wins and seven times in two losses—they should be able to move the ball effectively against a Georgia defense that gave up almost seven yards per carry in their upset loss to what had been an ineffective Florida offense.
Georgia Keys to Victory
Stick to the Short Passes
The last few weeks have provided a blueprint on how to move the ball effectively against Auburn—short passes, especially slants, against a secondary that is still struggling with communication breakdowns.
Auburn, now ranked No. 102 nationally in pass defense, has allowed 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air in its last three games. Quarterbacks haven't necessarily had to throw it deep to beat Auburn, as the Tigers have had more issues with short passes down the middle that turn into huge plays.
There will be a huge push to feed Gurley and his fellow star running backs with the emotion of Saturday's game, but the Bulldogs might be better served by using the pass to open up the run. Texas A&M definitely did that against Auburn by averaging five yards a touch, even with a pass-first attack.
Chew Up the Clock
Auburn's greatest strength is by far its offense at this point in the season, and it still has the ability to score at any moment.
Georgia will be able to attack Auburn's defense in a number of ways, but it will also be able to attack Auburn's offense by keeping it on the sidelines. While the Bulldogs have surprisingly averaged a smaller time of possession per game than uptempo Auburn, they have the pieces to play a ball-control offense with a lead Saturday night.
Keeping the ball away from Marshall and Auburn's other top playmakers might lead to some frustration and forced plays downfield. All that plays right into the advantage of Georgia, who will most likely not want to get into a high-scoring affair with the Tigers, if at all possible.
Grab the Special Teams Advantage
Isaiah McKenzie has returned a pair of punts for touchdowns this season, including one against Kentucky, and he added another special teams score against the Wildcats on a kickoff.
The Bulldogs will most likely put Gurley alongside McKenzie on kickoffs Saturday night, and, if Daniel Carlson can't boot it out of the end zone, Georgia could be in for some big plays. Speedy Noil and Texas A&M went with a gutsy "run it out if you can" approach against Auburn, and they totaled 110 yards on five returns against the Tigers.
Georgia will want to go after Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson when the Tigers are kicking, as evidenced by Texas A&M's touchdown off a blocked kick to end the first half in Auburn last weekend. Both teams have strengths and weaknesses in their third units, and Georgia will want to grab that advantage for big plays in front of its home crowd.
Auburn Players to Watch
QB Nick Marshall
This Saturday will undoubtedly be a big day for Marshall, who makes his return to Sanford Stadium for the first time since he was dismissed from the Bulldogs in 2011.
Marshall has had three of his best passing performances of the season in the last three weeks, so he will be coming in with confidence, even if star receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams stays out with an injury. The senior is getting more production out of Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Ricardo Louis as the regular season comes to a close.
Last season, the former Bulldog also had a pair of touchdowns on the ground to go along with that one jaw-dropping passing score to beat his former team. Look for Marshall to have a big game in both areas in his first game back in Athens.
RB Cameron Artis-Payne
Artis-Payne is steadily climbing the ranks as one of college football's best running backs this season as he comes in at No. 10 on the national charts in rushing yards per game.
"We've come to expect Cam to give us his best every week," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday night. "And I think he's kind of getting better as the season goes on, like he normally does in a game—he gets better as a game goes on. So I think that's a big tribute to him and just the way he works, his mindset, and the type of kid he is."
The senior is ahead of the pace Tre Mason set in his school-record-breaking season in 2013, and it's safe to say he will get more and more touches against Georgia. Auburn has complete confidence in his ability to make plays, and for good reason.
After senior and four-year starter Jermaine Whitehead made his return to defense after his long suspension and relegation to special teams duties, the Auburn coaching staff has a choice to make this weekend.
The Tigers might choose to move Whitehead back to the first team in a rotation of safeties that has had a rough few weeks. Whitehead wasn't even immune to the problems against Texas A&M—even though he came down with an interception in the first half, he missed a few tackles that turned into big plays for the Aggies.
Offenses are consistently targeting the middle of Auburn's 4-2-5 system with short passes, and the safeties have to be the ones to step up and stop the bleeding. Each member of Auburn's defense could use some major improvement heading into Saturday's game, but the safeties will have a special spotlight on them.
Georgia Players to Watch
QB Hutson Mason
It is tough replacing a four-year starter like Aaron Murray, but Mason has performed so well this season that he has impressed veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
"The thing that impresses me about him is that he looks like he's about 25 years old," Johnson said Sunday night. "He's operating that offense. He's making great decisions. When he is throwing the ball, he's very accurate. And those big running backs make you do some things that hopefully gets (them) some one-on-ones out there."
Mason has a healthy crop of first-choice receivers around him, something Murray didn't have last season when the Bulldogs came to the Plains. The senior is coming off the game of his life against Kentucky, and he has a chance at doing more of the same Saturday.
RB Todd Gurley
After a four-game absence, Gurley will finally be back on the field for Georgia this Saturday.
The star running back was simply on a Heisman-worthy pace before the suspension, posting games of 198, 131, 208 and 163 yards against power-conference opponents. He is one of the nation's best big-play backs, finding a way to hurt opposing teams on handoffs, catches out of the backfield and kick returns.
Nick Chubb has performed well in Gurley's absence, so the Bulldogs will be confident in a pair of running back weapons they can use against a struggling Auburn defense. All eyes will be on Gurley, though, as he makes his long-awaited return to action.
LB Amarlo Herrera
Herrera is a do-it-all linebacker on a team with several top players at the position. He leads the team in tackles and tackles for loss while also coming through with four sacks.
"They’ve got good speed and athleticism," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday night. "The two linebackers that are back, Wilson and Herrera, are very good players and have played a lot of ball. They are probably as good a linebacker tandem as there is in our league, I would think."
The senior had a dozen tackles in the loss to Auburn last season, and he brings a lot of experience to the table. He will be tasked with helping slow down an explosive Tigers offense that has been able to move the ball against several of the SEC's best defenses this season.
What They're Saying
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on trying to stop Todd Gurley:
There’s two or three ways to try to do it: You could either load the box, put your wideouts on your DBs in coverage man to man or you can bring run blitzes, fire zone and run blitzes. We’ll probably have to try a little bit of everything. Nobody’s stopped him and some of them slowed him down a little bit. The only guy that stopped him was the autograph guy.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee on Georgia's defense:
They’ve got some guys back that have played a lot of ball. They were kind of more inexperienced last year. They were in a new system this year, but they have played more games. They’ve got a lot of guys we are familiar with on the back end, some playing now more than others. They are a team that has been very aggressive and very attacking, which is what [Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt] does. I think they lead at least the league and maybe the nation in turnover margin, so they generate a lot of things for their offense much like Ole Miss does. It will be a pretty good challenge for us.
We did improve; we did a better job. We didn’t do a perfect job obviously. They are one of the very best running teams in America. Everyone’s having trouble stopping them running the football. But when you add Nick’s ability to throw it, it’s pretty impressive.
Richt on Todd Gurley's return, per the Athens Banner-Herald's Marc Weiszer:
He’s definitely got fresh legs. I think he stayed in really good condition during the time that he wasn’t playing. I don’t think you forget how to play football in five weeks or forget how to run the ball the way he runs it and the way he pass protects and catches the ball out of the backfield and all that. I think it’ll come back to him pretty quick.
Saturday night's matchup in Athens will be a contest between two offenses that are clicking and two defenses that have struggled mightily against recent conference opponents.
A shootout for the ages appears to be in the cards.
I expect a barrage of points at the beginning of the game and another nerve-wracking second half with missed opportunities from both sides. Auburn's defense has shown improvement in the second half of games this season, but this Georgia offense will be one of the most star-studded ones the Tigers will face all year.
I have been predicting a Georgia win in this game since the preseason, and even though the circumstances surrounding this one have changed dramatically over the course of the fall, I still am leaning toward the Bulldogs to get this victory.
Auburn's inconsistent defense doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, especially on the road against a veteran attack, and this Georgia team will be itching to get revenge at home. Marshall and Artis-Payne might have to get points on most of their possessions, and that will not be an easy task against a Georgia defense looking to turn things around.
This game will most likely come down to who has the ball last and who can avoid making the crucial late mistake. In that case, give me the home favorite by a narrow margin—don't worry, Auburn fans, it's not like I have been any sort of prophet this season when it comes to picking Auburn's games.
Georgia 38, Auburn 34
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.