ATHENS — Auburn hasn’t beaten Georgia in Athens since 2005, a string of six straight games the Bulldogs have gotten the better of their Tiger rivals.
It will be a battle of Top 10 teams when No. 4 Georgia and No. 7 Auburn take the field between the hedges for their 7:30 p.m. game. ESPN .
Here are 5 questions with Auburn beat writer Tom Green of AL.com:
1. How has Auburn’s offensive scheme appeared to change under the direction of Chad Morris, and will Gus Malzahn still have any input?
I think the biggest difference we saw from Auburn’s offense in its first game under Morris is just the variety in the passing game. For so long, Auburn’s passing attack has relied on quick screens or swing passes followed by shots downfield, but against Kentucky we saw a lot more intermediate routes and the use of the entire field, which really opened things up for Bo Nix (and especially Seth Williams). We also saw Auburn switch things up more on first downs, with more designed passes in those situations than years prior, when you could almost bank on a first-down run play. As for Malzahn, he’s still involved in the gameplanning during the week, and he’s in-tune with what Morris is doing, but this is Morris’ offense and he’ll be responsible for calling the plays, as we saw against Kentucky.
2. How did the Tigers find themselves in position to have four first-time starters considering the way staffs often tailor their recruiting to ensure avoiding massive reloads?
Auburn had some down years recruiting the offensive line and had some key misses up front, but when your 2019 starting line opened the season with five senior starters, you’re bound to have first-timers up front the following year. The fortunate thing for Auburn is the lone returning starter, Nick Brahms (who took over the job midway through last season) is at center, so at least Nix has a strong rapport with the guy he’s in closest contact to each play. There are some other guys who have starting experience, like grad transfer Brandon Council, but this group is very much a work in progress – especially as the Tigers struggled to keep the same five together throughout the preseason due to being impacted by COVID-19 protocols.
3. Why doesn’t Auburn have the sort dominant tailback the program has long been known for? Kerryon Johnson’s last season was 2017, who was supposed to be next man up?
Part of the issue the last two seasons has been an inconsistent push from the offensive line, which hindered the Tigers’ success on the ground, but Auburn has also tried to shift from a featured back to more of a committee approach the last year or two. I expect that to be the same this year, since Auburn has some quality depth in the backfield. Shaun Shivers has been a role player his first two years, but after a strong finish to 2019 (hello, game-deciding touchdown run in the Iron Bowl) and a solid offseason, he has earned the starting job. D.J. Williams is the team’s leading returning rusher from last year following the offseason departure of No. 1 back Boobee Whitlow, and then the Tigers have a pair of talented newcomers in redshirt freshman Mark-Antony Richards (who fits the same mold as Kerryon Johnson, style-wise and skill-wise) and vaunted freshman Tank Bigsby, who was the gem of Auburn’s 2020 class. I expect at some point, the Tigers are going to have to pick one of those four to lean on late in games and as the season goes on, but just who that is anyone’s guess at this point.
4. How “safe” is Gus Malzahn’s job, and does Alabama’s relative fall-off the last two seasons provide Gus with more of a buffer? Or is it the simple matter of him beating the Tide two of the last three years?
Malzahn is seemingly perpetually on the hot seat, which is something he acknowledged last year at SEC Media Days. It comes with the territory at Auburn, where expectations are high and your in-state rival just happens to be the greatest modern dynasty in college football. But I feel like this year Malzahn is safer than some others because of a) the makeup of this team and b) the circumstances of this season. This is a young Auburn team (the two-deep features only 10 seniors, with four of them listed as starters) that features a new system on offense, and while it’s not a “rebuilding year,” it is building toward what should be a better product in 2021, especially since no one will lose a year of eligibility this fall. Combine that with the financial uncertainty within the athletics department, where AD Allen Greene projects a budgetary shortfall of 10s of millions of dollars, and it makes getting rid of Malzahn and his hefty buyout (75 percent of his remaining contract, so $21,450,000 at the end of this season) an incredibly tough pill to swallow.
5. Auburn players sounded very confident in their Sunday night Zoom call. What’s the source of the swagger we’re hearing from the Tigers this week?
On the defensive side, they feel very confident up front after a strong performance against a very good Kentucky offensive line. They got punched in the mouth early and played shorthanded (Big Kat Bryant didn’t play in the first half and was limited in the second due to an ankle injury, while Derick Hall got a targeting ejection just before halftime) but still dominated the line of scrimmage in the second half. That does a lot for confidence, as does having defensive coordinator Kevin Steele – a master at in-game adjustments – back for his fifth year. Offensively, I think they feel good about what they put on the field in Week 1. It wasn’t an onslaught like we saw from Mississippi State or Florida’s offenses last weekend, but it was a solid debut for Morris’ offense and a good foundation to build upon overall. I think they feel they’re just scratching the surface of what they can do on that side of the ball. Plus, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that they know they’re going on the road and will only have to deal with 20-25 percent of the crowd they normally encounter in a place that has been a nightmare for the program for the last 15 years.
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