ATHENS ― Justin Ferguson is still a young man, yet he already has logged nearly five years on the Auburn football beat.
An Auburn graduate, Ferguson has handled the Tigers’ beat the last two years for SEC Country. Before that, he was doing it as a student at Auburn, while also providing coverage as a correspondent for Bleacher Report, the Associated Press, Sporting News, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, the Opelika-Auburn News and the Auburn Plainsman. Interestingly enough, he tells me the first Auburn game he ever covered as a reporter was the 38-0 “beatdown” Georgia put on the Tigers on The Plains in 2012.
So Ferguson has done a lot of writing and reporting the last several years. And, of course, he has been with the Tigers every step of the way this season. You can see all his coverage on SECcountry.com.
We reached out to Justin this week to answer our questions about the No. 1o Auburn Tigers, who enter the Saturday home game against No. 1 Georgia as the highest-ranked, two-loss team in America. Let’s see what he thinks about this College Football Playoff rankings top-10 matchup Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
1. I just can’t get past those 11 sacks by Clemson in Week 2. What exactly happened that game, and what have the Tigers done to fix that?
Ferguson: Those 11 sacks came down to a combination of factors, namely Auburn calling too many deep pass plays with an offensive line that just wasn’t ready to handle Clemson’s pass rush. After that game, Auburn’s play-calling improved — a lot of that had to do with first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey moving up to the press box — and the Tigers pulled young left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho from the starting lineup.
Auburn has done a better job of giving Jarrett Stidham shorter options and quicker passes since that game, and the new-look offensive line has done a good job protecting him. Since then, the Tigers have allowed just 1.43 sacks per game. Even with a growing number of injury issues up front — an improved Wanogho will most likely start Saturday — Auburn has done a much better job of keeping Stidham upright with the personnel and strategy decisions.
2. I think Auburn probably has the best defense Georgia has faced this season. What do you believe to be the Tigers’ biggest advantage as far as their defense versus the Bulldogs offense?
Ferguson: I think Auburn’s pass rush is its biggest advantage over Georgia this weekend. Jeff Holland has been one of the nation’s best pass rushers, and the Tigers can go as many as three-deep along the defensive line with quality players. The Tigers have been able to get after almost every quarterback they’ve faced without blitzing. Georgia’s offensive line has done quite well this season, but Auburn’s pass rush against a freshman quarterback making his first start in a large, truly hostile road environment ― UGA’s takeover of South Bend doesn’t really count to me ― should be huge.
Both Auburn and Georgia have strong run games and strong run defenses. Auburn has a clear statistical edge in getting after the quarterback, and that should serve them well in front of their home fans.
3. Conversely, I expect the Bulldogs defense to be the best Auburn has faced this season. How do you see Auburn attacking it?
Ferguson: I see Auburn making a concerted effort to stay as balanced as it can against Georgia. That means Stidham needs to get into an early rhythm, and Auburn needs to be effective enough in running the ball that it can create one-and-one matchups with the Georgia defensive backs. That’s when Auburn has been its most effective this season, when the yards are split evenly in passing and running and they have room to hit bigger plays downfield.
Since Georgia doesn’t have a real weakness on defense, I don’t see Auburn leaning too hard in one direction or the other. It helps that Auburn is one of the few teams in college football averaging at least 220 passing yards and 220 rushing yards this season. This should be a fantastic matchup between two talented offenses, but the defenses should steal the show Saturday. Both have been playing lights-out football.
4. Georgia has won nine of the last 11 in this series. How is that viewed on the Tigers’ side of this rivalry?
Ferguson: There are plenty of Auburn fans who consider Georgia as just as big of a rival — if not bigger — than Alabama. That close proximity to Georgia and metro Atlanta and the fact Auburn recruits so much in the state create such an intense rivalry.
Simply put, the pressure is on Gus Malzahn here. Auburn has lost three straight to both Georgia and Alabama. It’s hard to believe he’ll stay around for much longer if that extends to four in a row. And, as of right now, Georgia looks like the more likely upset. So Auburn needs to end the skid in this one. Not many Tigers fans will be able to stomach 10 losses in 12 to the Bulldogs. Fortunately for Auburn, it’s won all three of the previous meetings in this series when both teams are in the top 10.
5. Can you shed any light on what Atlanta’s Kyle Davis did to get dismissed from the Auburn football team? And how are Darius Slayton and the other wideouts doing?
Ferguson: Kyle Davis was on a short leash this season. He missed the entire spring due to an undisclosed off-the-field issue, and then he got suspended for the season opener. He didn’t have any more chances with the coaching staff, so all it took was one more incident before the LSU game to send him out. The details of what Davis did aren’t completely clear, but he very much became a repeat offender of team rules over the past year.
Darius Slayton is fresh off back-to-back big games in which he knocked on the door of 100 yards with long plays downfield. He is Auburn’s best vertical threat, as he averages a whopping 30 yards per catch this season. Auburn will try to find ways to get him open deep against a Georgia secondary that usually prevents that type of play. Also, keep an eye on Ryan Davis — the SEC’s co-leader in catches — as he’s been a dynamic weapon on screen passes and short-yardage routes all season long. Eli Stove is a dual threat as a receiver and a runner, and Will Hastings is good for a couple of deep-ball opportunities every game, thanks to his elite agility.
I like how Auburn matches up against Georgia, even with Malzahn’s struggles in big games over the last few seasons. He finally has a dynamic, healthy quarterback for the first time since Nick Marshall, and he’s armed with his best defense yet. I trust Stidham more at home than the younger Fromm on the road, especially with Auburn’s pass rush performing so well this season. This should be a close, physical game between two evenly talented teams. Auburn won’t hold anything back, as Malzahn desperately needs this win and can’t afford to fall into the same traps he did against Clemson and LSU. Give me the desperate home team by a few points in an instant classic. AUBURN 27, GEORGIA 24.