Will Nick Chubb return to dominance?
(Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn football preview! On November 12th, Auburn will visit Athens, Georgia, for the annual tilt with the Bulldogs, in the oldest football rivalry in the South. Sanford Stadium is a place where the Tigers haven’t won since a 4th quarter Brandon Cox-led comeback in 2005. That day, Auburn took down the eventual SEC champion Bulldogs, 31-30. Auburn has won only 2 of the last 10 games with Georgia.
Auburn starts with a five game home stand this season. The Tigers open with Clemson, then regroup with Arkansas State, then Texas A&M, LSU and homecoming against Louisiana Monroe, before traveling to Mississippi State. A bye week precedes the Arkansas game at Jordan Hare Stadium, then the Tigers travel to Ole Miss. The Tigers then host Vanderbilt, before traveling to Georgia. The Bulldogs open in Atlanta, with the North Carolina Tarheels. A home breather against Nichols follows, then Georgia travels to Missouri and Ole Miss. Georgia enters October hosting Tennessee, then travels to South Carolina. Georgia hosts Vanderbilt for Homecoming, has an off week after, then heads to Jacksonville for their annual grudge match with Florida. A road trip to Kentucky is next, then the Bulldogs host Auburn.
At the end of last season, Georgia fired long-time head coach Mark Richt, and hired Kirby Smart to take over the program. As this is Smart’s first stint as an SEC head coach, there will be a lot of unknowns regarding Georgia strategy. Smart has begun with a bang, calling upon the support of the Bulldog nation. He was rewarded with the largest spring game crowd in SEC history, estimated at 93,000.
On the offensive side of the ball, Smart tapped veteran coach Jim Chaney as his offensive coordinator. Chaney has had several stops previously in the SEC, and he’s produced capable offenses consistently. In particular, I’d expect to see a much more precise and dangerous Bulldog passing attack this season, despite youth in the receiving corps. The real question mark at this point is the Georgia running attack. Star runner Nick Chubb was still greatly slowed in spring ball by a knee injury from the previous season. His able replacement, Sony Michel broke his arm this month and is in a cast. Add in an ongoing quarterback race, and it’s mostly guesswork on what we may see on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs this fall.
Defensively, I think we will see a very similar style as the past couple of seasons. Both head coach Kirby Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker are veterans in the 3-4 defense, and if the Georgia spring game is any indication, their defense will be very strong against the run. However, this will be a pretty young defense in the front 7. A quick glance at the stat page shows that Georgia loses their top 4 tacklers to graduation this year.
With both kicker Marshall Morgan and punter Collin Barber leaving, and a whole new coaching staff in place, it’s difficult to predict what we may see from the Georgia special teams units. Last year’s return specialists do return, and they were explosive at times last season.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Georgia offensive line: Auburn brings a deep and talented defensive line into this game, a line that finally looked healthy this spring, after a couple of years of problems. Junior defensive end Carl Lawson and senior tackle Montravius Adams could have been drafted by the NFL last spring, had they gone out. Sophomore tackle Dontavius Russell really came on late last year, and was a force in Auburn’s spring game. Auburn’s end situation on the strong side is still a bit unsettled. Sophomore Byron Cowart was the heir-apparent this past spring, but it was true freshman phenom Marlon Davidson who started on A-Day, and he was impressive. Auburn has depth at both positions, and the team plans to rotate frequently up front. Georgia will go with sophomore Kendall Baker at left tackle, and senior Greg Pyke on the right side. Guards will be juniors Isaiah Wynn and Dyshon Simms. Senior Brandon Kublanow holds down the center spot. Georgia will be solid, if not spectacular up front. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Georgia backs: I think I’ll pencil junior Tre’ Williams and incoming senior transfer T. J. Neal in as starters, and I think we’ll see sophomore Deshaun Davis if Auburn uses 3 linebackers. There is talent behind those guys, although most of it is unproven. With both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel still nursing injuries in July, it’s a real question going into the fall. However, the Bulldogs aren’t bereft of talent if the top two runners can’t play. There’s senior Brendan Douglas, although he had a broken wrist during spring drills. The rest of UGA’s runners have no significant playing time to date. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Georgia receivers: Auburn will be talented, if a bit young at corner this season. Sophomore Carlton Davis is locked in at one starting spot, after a stellar freshman campaign. A battle is still on for the other spot, between redshirt freshman Jamel Dean, senior T. J. Davis, freshman John Broussard, and redshirt freshman Javaris Davis. One could also see senior Joshua Holsey at corner, if necessary. All of these guys showed great things this spring. Georgia loses explosive deep threat Malcomb Mitchell. Top returnees at the receiver position are sophomore Terry Godwin (35 catches) and junior Isaiah McKenzie (10 catches). Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Georgia secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m going to put senior starting Auburn nickelback Jonathan Ford here with the safeties, and it’s really not certain at this time who’ll be back there with him. Senior Joshua Holsey and junior Tray Matthews are veterans, but both are coming off surgery. Junior Stephen Roberts came off the bench last season to replace the fallen, and he looked good this spring. Junior Nick Ruffin held down the other safety spot this spring. Auburn should have a good bit of depth, here. Junior tight end Jeb Blazevich showed good hands last season, and senior Reggie Davis should do pretty well coming off the bench as a third receiver. Watching Jim Chaney offenses in the past, I’d look to see the running backs more involved in the passing game, as well. The Georgia quarterback race is still wide open. Georgia alternated between senior Greyson Lambert and junior Brice Ramsey. Neither guy was spectacular, but I felt like they both did a good job of avoiding turnovers. Those two guys are being pushed by true freshman early enrollee Jason Eason. Eason was certainly the star of the spring game with 244 passing yards, but he was working against backups on defense. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Senior Kevin Phillips returns to punt again for Auburn, but he is being challenged by redshirt freshman Ian Shannon this summer. Phillips averaged 41.0 yards on 55 punts, with 5 touchbacks and 17 balls killed inside the 20. Auburn gave up only 7 returns all last season for a 12.4 yard average, but one of them was an average-inflating 53 yard touchdown. Senior Marcus Davis handled all Auburn punt returns last season, for a healthy 11.9 yard average. Georgia plans to start freshman Marshall Long as the punter this season. For what it’s worth with a new staff in this season, Georgia gave up 8.4 yards per return last year. Isaiah McKenzie averaged 12.8 yards per punt return, with a pair of touchdowns. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 49 touchbacks on 69 kickoffs. When other teams did return the ball, the Auburn coverage held them to 21.2 yards per return. Auburn was dangerous returning the ball, averaging 27.9 yards per return, despite not having one go for a touchdown. Jonathan Ford and sophomore Kerryon Johnson return, here, sporting last season averages of 28.6 and 27.6, respectively. Georgia will go with redshirt freshman Rodrigo Blankenship as the kickoff man this year. Georgia coverage gave up 21.2 yards per return, identical to Auburn’s average. Georgia’s return team averaged only 18.1 yards per return, with Reggie Davis leading the way with 17 returns for a 23.2 yard average. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. Carlson was 23 of 27 on field goals, and perfect on extra points last season. Georgia counters with redshirt freshman Rodrigo Blankenship, who has not recorded a college stat, yet. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Georgia defensive line: The Tigers retool this year under new line coach Herb Hand. They’ll go with junior Austin Golson at left tackle, senior Alex Kozan at guard, senior Xavier Dampeer at center, junior Braden Smith at right guart, and senior Robert Leff at right tackle. This should be a veteran, dominating bunch. At nose tackle, Georgia will go with sophomore Trenton Thompson. Ends will be sophomores Michael Barnett and Jonathan Ledbetter. Only Thompson has extensive playing time to date. This is a young, and somewhat undersized line at the end positions. It’s worth noting that coach Smart made it a point after the spring game to encourage this line to get bigger and stronger. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Georgia linebackers: Senior Jovon Robinson looks to be Auburn’s feature-back next season, after coming on strong down the stretch last season. He’ll be joined in the backfield by a brutal tandem of H-backs, in sophomores Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox. Both of those guys are a threat with the ball in their hands, also. Pettway and Cox may also be featured as tailbacks behind Robinson. Georgia will line up junior Reggie Carter and sophomore Natrez Patrick inside, and juniors Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter outside. Collectively, these 4 guys have exactly 6 games started between them. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Georgia corners: Auburn appears set at the outside receiver spots coming out of spring, with senior Marcus Davis and junior Jason Smith as starters. The Tigers could be helped by an influx of talented true freshmen this fall. The rest of the group really didn’t impress, on A-Day. While Georgia is young in the front seven, junior corners Malkom Parrish and Aaron Davis have been in the wars. Both have the speed to stay with any receiver. I did note that former UGA coach Jim Donnan admonished this group for not playing the ball in the air in the past. Advantage: Georgia.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Georgia safeties: Auburn has potential threats here, in Darius Slayton, Logan Rice, and Ryan Davis. Tight ends will likely be used more, this season, and freshman Landon Rice reportedly has good hands. Still, none of these guys has much experience. Auburn is still unsettled at quarterback, having not named a starter coming out of spring drills. Tallying up the various rumors has sophomore Sean White at the top of the heap, but this decision won’t be made till fall. Georgia is again veteran at safety, starting senior Quincy Mauger and junior Dominic Sanders. Sanders had 6 interceptions and 6 more balls batted down last season, which is impressive for a free safety. Advantage: Georgia.
I believe that this game will be won or lost depending upon whether Auburn can run on this bunch or not. I’m not confident at all, if Auburn has to live by attacking a veteran Georgia secondary. The Tigers need to control this game up front on both sides of the ball. I expect Georgia to have a very capable offense, particularly if they are healthy at running back by November.
I expect that new coach Kirby Smart will have some transition issues this fall. His offense will likely be pretty good, but he has an awfully young defense returning up front. I think Georgia will be able to hang in against some of the shaky SEC East offenses, but they might be outmanned at times against some of the bigger SEC teams.
Prediction: Auburn returns to tradition and manhandles the Bulldogs in Athens. Tigers win, 34-13.
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