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July 15, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Georgia

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On the sixth and final day of our series, we begin with the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tigers will host the Bulldogs for the second straight season in Game No. 11 this fall.

Who: Georgia

When: Saturday, Nov. 16UGA

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

All-time series: Series tied 54-54-8

When last they met: It was a dismal night for Auburn when Georgia came to town last season. With an opportunity to play spoiler and prevent the Bulldogs from winning the SEC Eastern Division title for the second straight year, the Tigers could get nothing going offensively, never scoring in a 38-0 loss. Georgia’s defense was playing better than it had all season, as the shutout against Auburn came after allowing nine points and 10 points to Florida and Ole Miss, respectively, in its previous two games. While the Tigers’ offense couldn’t score, the defense was unable to find an answer to slow down the Bulldogs’ balanced attack. Georgia ran for 289 yards — with freshmen phenoms Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combining for 221 yards and a touchdown apiece — while quarterback Aaron Murray was coolly efficient, completing 75 percent of his attempts (18 of 24) for 208 yards and three scores. The Bulldogs’ shutout was the first in the series since they won 28-0 in 1976, and the victory evened the all-time record in “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” at 54-54-8. The only cheer of the night from the Tiger faithful came when Jordan-Hare Stadium’s video board put the end of the Alabama/Texas A&M game on the screen just before kickoff against the Bulldogs. When the Aggies completed the upset to snap the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s 13-game win streak, Auburn fans were given a brief moment to revel in their arch-rival’s defeat.

The coach: Mark Richt (118-40 record in 12 seasons at Georgia)

2012 record: 12-2, 7-1 SEC (won SEC Eastern Division title; lost to Alabama 32-28 in SEC Championship Game; beat Nebraska 45-31 in Capital One Bowl)

Total offense: 467.64 ypg (22nd in Division I, 3rd in SEC)

Scoring offense: 37.79 ppg (19th, 3rd)

Total defense: 357.79 ypg (32nd, 6th)

Scoring defense: 19.64 ppg (18th, 6th)

2012 Year-in-Review: In nearly any other season, and at nearly any other school, 12 wins and a bowl victory would be cause for massive celebrations. But Georgia’s feelings on those accomplishments were subdued, since it knew how much greater last season could have been. Coming within five yards of beating Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in a 32-28 defeat meant the Bulldogs saw their dreams of playing in the BCS National Championship Game dashed in the most agonizing way possible. The Bulldogs started out the season with two of their best defenders — free safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree — on the sideline for the first four games after reportedly failing drug tests. The defense, not surprisingly, was an up-and-down unit in their absence, usually putting one good half together in each of the team’s first five games, all victories. Then came South Carolina. The Gamecocks dominated the Bulldogs in every facet of a 35-7 demolition, making a laugher out of a game that pitted the No. 5 (Georgia) and No. 6 (South Carolina) teams in the country heading into the weekend. Two weeks later, Georgia got by SEC doormat Kentucky by the skin of its teeth in a 29-24 win, causing strong safety Shawn Williams — who rarely made himself available for interviews —  to call out his defensive teammates in front of media members for “playing soft” two days later. Coincidentally, Williams made his comments during the week of the Florida game. That lit a fire under the Bulldogs’ defense, as it allowed only 45 points over its next five games. While the defense took until the midway point of the season to find itself, Georgia’s offense was in a rhythm seemingly from the get-go. The Bulldogs set numerous records on offense on the arm of Murray and the two-headed tandem of Gurley and Marshall at tailback, including most points in a season (529) and highest average per game (37.8). After Georgia lost the SEC Championship Game to Alabama, it rebounded to beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl 45-31, the Bulldogs’ first bowl victory since the 2009 Independence Bowl against then-Big 12 member Texas A&M.

Biggest area of concern: Many may look at the linebacking unit and see that both master-of-havoc Jarvis Jones and Ogletree have taken their services to the NFL, and from there, draw conclusions that the unit was in serious trouble this fall. And that line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, Jones and Ogletree were key contributors on the defense, but Jordan Jenkins, who roomed with Jones on every road trip last season, was being groomed to take Jones’ place whenever the Columbus native left. Jenkins proved it on the field, finishing second on the team in sacks (five) — behind his mentor, of course. Another starter at linebacker, junior Amarlo Herrera, will also be back to provide additional leadership. No, the area of greatest concern for the Bulldogs this season is the secondary. Losing three senior starters in Williams, Rambo and Sanders Commings — as well as longtime starter Branden Smith, who was knocked out of the starting lineup by Damian Swann last year — leaves the back end of Georgia’s defense to young, inexperienced players. Aside from Swann at one cornerback spot, the other three positions in the secondary are still fluid heading into the Bulldogs’ preseason camp.

Key returning player/unit: Undoubtedly, the most important piece back for the Bulldogs is their fifth-year signal-caller, Murray. He returns for one last go-round in the SEC on the verge of breaking nearly every passing-related record in league history. In 2012, he became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons. He needs just 1,438 yards to break David Greene’s school and conference record for passing yards (11,528) and with 95 touchdown passes, Murray is only behind former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel (114) on the SEC’s all-time list. To knock Wuerffel out of the top spot, Murray must toss 20 touchdown passes this season. Given what he has returning on offense — the Bulldogs are bringing back 10 starters from last season — it’s a good bet the Tampa, Fla., native becomes the record holder in both departments as long as he stays healthy.

Extra point: Georgia’s 12 wins last year marked only the third time in school history it had recorded that many victories in a single season. The other two teams (1980 and 2002) both won the SEC title. The 1980 team also won the national championship that year, while the 2002 squad set a school record for most wins in a season with 13.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES

Washington State

Arkansas State

Mississippi State

Florida Atlantic

Arkansas

Tennessee

November 9, 2012

Behind Enemy Lines: Breaking down the Bulldogs by Seth Emerson, Macon Telegraph

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.