All right, Emerson. Finally, we meet.
I shared my five (okay, six) thoughts on Auburn’s side of the ball for the Macon Telegraph. Likewise, @SethEmerson was gracious enough to lend some Georgia insight on five (fine, six) burning topics going into the 116th installment of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Why six this week? Why not, I say. It’s rivalry week. Whatevs.
Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: Alabama and LSU just played the Game To End All Games, and Texas A&M’s getting more and more pub as Johnny Manziel’s legend grows. But then, there’s Georgia over in the SEC East … seems like it’s kind of lurking. After the Florida upset and Ole Miss rout, is this definitively the Bulldogs’ peak so far this year?
Seth Emerson, Macon Telegraph: Definitely, although it took until the second half against Ole Miss for that rout to happen. The Bulldogs have still yet to put together a well-played complete game on both sides of the ball, with the exception of the Vanderbilt game. Despite that, they are the highest-ranked one-loss team nationally, and still have an outside shot at a national title. Now that’s predicated on beating Alabama in the SEC championship game, which if it were Saturday I wouldn’t give the Bulldogs much of a shot. But they don’t play them Saturday, so they have three weeks to iron out things.
Brenner: How have the two freshman backs, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, had so much success as young centerpieces? And do you see Marshall breaking out of a big of a funk recently?
Emerson: Gurley and Marshall – or “Gurshall” as they’re being called – have been good for a number of reasons, starting with their ability to stay on the field. (As in, not get suspended or hurt.) They’re also different than what Georgia has had lately because they have that second gear that allows them to break off long runs. Even Isaiah Crowell seemed to have a problem getting into the secondary and past the safety. But Gurley and Marshall have been able to break open some long ones. Marshall (520 yards, 6.1 yards per carry) hasn’t really been in a funk, he just pales in comparison to Gurley, who now has six 100-yard games, and is the SEC’s top tailback rusher. (Manziel is the only one better in the SEC.) Gurley has a lot of skills, but what stands out to me is how rarely he gets tackled by the first guy. Besides that burst, the kid is also really hard to bring down.
Brenner: Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell will obviously have to step up with Marlon Brown’s career over. Is this receiving corps still more than capable against a young Auburn secondary?
Emerson: Yes. While Brown was tied for the team lead in catches, King is a senior who’s proven, and Mitchell would probably be leading the team in all receiving categories if he hadn’t been on defense the first four weeks of the season. The question, with Brown now joining Michael Bennett on the out-for-season list, is how much receiving depth will be a concern. Chris Conley, a sophomore with seven catches last year, showed a lot of promise last year, but got kind of lost in the shuffle this year. I think he’s the guy who will benefit now in terms of snaps.
Brenner: Jarvis Jones is looking at a second straight All-American campaign, all the more impressive since he commands more attention without Abry Jones around. He’s projected as a top-of-the-draft type of guy. Does he get better in clutch moments, like against Mizzou and Florida?
Emerson: I wouldn’t say there’s much deviation between the big and not-so-big games. He was also held sack-less against South Carolina, and this past weekend against Ole Miss. But he was held out of Florida Atlantic and Kentucky because of injuries, which were prime opportunities to pad his sack total. Either way, he’s on track to break David Pollack’s school record of 14. (Jones has 8.5). Jones is the real deal, a complete player who Georgia will move back into coverage when necessary and is also proficient against the run. Two years ago they had Justin Houston in the OLB spot, and Houston led the SEC in sacks until the postseason, when Nick Fairley overtook him. But Jones is a better all-around player.
Brenner: Speaking of Jones, Auburn OL Chad Slade was complimentary of Jones, but added “he can be stopped. It’s not that hard.” A Twitter follower of mine mentioned Georgia plays better when it’s called out, when the Bulldogs have a chip on their shoulder. Do you agree?
Emerson: Oh yeah. That was the story of the season until last week: Why the team got up for certain games because of outside motivation. Against Missouri, it was the “old man football” comments by a Mizzou player. Against Vanderbilt, it was last year’s postgame shenanigans between Todd Grantham and James Franklin. And against Florida it was their own player, safety Shawn Williams, calling out the unit. Those were Georgia’s best three games of the season. I’ll be curious if Slade’s comments ended up resonating. As you said, he was overall complimentary. But Jones was made aware right away – that day on the practice field – of what was said. Thing is, Jones doesn’t usually need the extra motivation. Georgia would have preferred that Slade say everyone on the defense was easier to block. In any case, Mark Richt seemed sure that the team didn’t need extra motivation anymore, so perhaps he’s right. We’ll see.
Brenner: BONUS QUESTION: Any chance Georgia screws this up Saturday, against its rival, with an SEC Championship game berth on the line?
Emerson: Before last week I pointed to the Auburn game as potentially more dangerous than Ole Miss, simply because it wasn’t in Athens, and the rivalry aspect of it. Then Georgia found itself down 10-0 at home to Ole Miss, before rallying. My sense is that game still has some trap qualities for the Bulldogs, especially if the Tigers get a decent home atmosphere and stay in the game for awhile. But on a simple Xs-and-Os level, I don’t see how Auburn scores more than, say, 17 points, while Georgia’s offense would seem to have a floor of 20 points. So there would have to be some wackiness, whether it be turnovers or special teams mistakes – which is certainly possible with Georgia. But the Bulldogs do seem to be on an upward trend.