ATHENS — Georgia’s season goals are likely riding on the outcome of its game at Auburn, the Bulldogs with no margin for error amid a heated College Football Playoff race.
Kirby Smart is keeping the focus strictly on the Tigers and the pending battle at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It’s affectionally known as “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry,” but it also ranks among the most bitter.
The No. 4-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 5-1) and the No. 12 Tigers (7-2, 4-2) recruit against one another and its abundantly clear the coaches are not favorites of one another.
Auburn beat writer Brandon Marcello, however, is a friend of DawgNation’s and provided some deep insight into Auburn football for Georgia fans this week.
Here are five questions with Marcello, who handles the beat on The Plains for 247Sports for the Auburn Undercover Website.
For the latest on Auburn sports, follow Marcello on Twitter.
1. Gus Malzahn is known for his offensive innovation, where is Auburn strongest and weakest on offense, and how far along is Bo Nix?
BM: Auburn’s weak point is along the offensive line, where inconsistency has plagued the Tigers all season. The second weak spot might just be quarterback, where Bo Nix has shown signs of brilliance but also has been pretty average for the most part. The good news for Auburn is Nix is a much different quarterback at home than he is on the road (63.5 vs. 48.5 completion percentage) but that will be challenged against the best defense he has faced all season (Georgia).
I really like Auburn’s receivers, and I believe the coaching staff needs to find a way to get them more involved, particularly speedster Anthony Schwartz. He has world-class speed and might be an Olympian in a few years. They need to utilize him as much as possible in the passing game, but also on jet sweeps, end-arounds and reverses. Auburn has to stretch every defense sideline to sideline and goal line to goal line. Schwartz is the only player on the roster who can do that.
2. The Tigers’ defense is filled with veterans, what are Auburn’s strengths and weaknesses at each level?
BM: The Auburn defensive line is the strength of the entire team. The combination of Derrick Brown in the middle demanding double teams and collapsing the quarterback’s pocket has been tremendous. Defensive end Marlon Davidson has been the star pass rusher. The two are great friends and constantly poke fun at each other for being “fat,” which has made for some funny stories through the season as they have combined to win five (!) defensive lineman of the week awards in the SEC this season. They’ll have to play their best to give the Tigers a chance Saturday. With Brown being from Georgia, I don’t see him lacking for motivation.
Auburn’s secondary has been fine, but there’s room for improvement. I think cornerback Noah Igbinoghene has a future in the NFL. Safeties Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson, both seniors, haven’t let many balls go over their heads this season and both have been tremendous in run support.
The biggest thing for this defense is its open-field tackling. It helped slow LSU’s offense earlier this season and it needs to continue during this tough stretch against the Bulldogs and Alabama.
3. There’s been plenty of discussion about how these teams matchup, why or why not are the Tigers a tough matchup for Kirby Smart’s version of Georgia football?
BM: Auburn’s defense is a tough matchup for any offense. Just look at what the Tigers did at LSU in October. They held LSU to four touchdowns under its average. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele introduced a 3-1-7 scheme that confused LSU and put a lot of pressure on Joe Burrow to deliver highly-accurate passes, which he did for the most part, but Auburn made fantastic stops in the open field.
4. The Alabama-Auburn rivalry gets its fair due, how is the Tigers’ rivalry with Georgia different?
BM: This rivalry seems a bit more heated from a players’ perspective, particularly on the Auburn side, because many players hail from Georgia. I’m not sure it’s a better rivalry, all around, than the Iron Bowl, but it’s in the same neighborhood. This is something that has obviously been built organically over the years, but for it to truly be personal, the players have to be invested. And with players from both states on both rosters, it’s about pride and as one Auburn player put it today, going home to your brother and telling him you beat them.
5. Malzahn has been working with a freshman QB and beat a Top 10 Oregon team and stayed even with No. 1 LSU. How important is this game to his future, and why do some fans seem so intent on pushing the job security issue and hampering the team’s ability to recruit in doing so?
BM: Everywhere I’ve been, and I’m sure you would agree on some basis, the fan bases have been incredibly loyal and passionate. They can also be their own worst enemy because of their love for the program and the desire for their football programs to be the best they possibly can be. You couple that with the old saying that a head coach loses 10 percent of the fan base for every year he’s on campus (well, save if you’re winning national titles), and Gus Malzahn is near that tipping point after nearly seven years as the head coach and an additional three years as the offensive coordinator. Malzahn has been part of Auburn football for the majority of the last 11 years, and with that comes stability but also the ability to easily identify weaknesses and strengths. Fans feast upon those things, and when a strong, powerful, cash-rich group is not happy with the coach, it makes it easier for fans to jump on the hate train as well.
My simple question to people is this, which always brings about heated debate: who can Auburn hire? Who will be more successful? Who will lead Auburn to two SEC Championship games, a national title appearance, two New Year’s Six bowl games in six years? Only two SEC West teams have reached the SEC title game since Malzahn has been on campus: Alabama and Auburn. That will change this season with LSU, but you get my point.
Sometimes the grass is not always greener, but like listening to someone snore for a few minutes in the middle of the night, even the most beautiful creature during the day can seem like something else entirely if you choose to focus on the things that irk you rather than the attributes that make you happy.
Success can be fleeting, especially in the SEC. For Auburn to do what it has done under Gus Malzahn in this era with Nick Saban across the state has been, well, remarkable. Maybe there’s a better coach out there who could work under these circumstances and take Auburn to the playoff every two to three years, but can you point them my direction? And would they take the job?
I understand frustration. It’s fandom. It’s why college football is great.
But let’s have some perspective here, too.
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