ATHENS — Last time we visited with a reporter covering Auburn, we visited with SEC Country’s Justin Ferguson, as we did the year before. And he actually did a pretty good job of predicting the outcome.
Well, at least he got the winning team right. Ferguson wrote that he expected the Tigers would win in a tight game that would become “an instant classic.” It was classic, all right, but in the way of a classic beatdown of Georgia.
But since the Bulldogs are about to play the Tigers for the third time in the past two years — and for the first time in history for the SEC championship — I figured we’d shake it up a little and talk instead to Lauren Shute.
Shute actually covers the Auburn beat alongside Ferguson at SEC Country. But I was hoping she might offer us a little different perspective.
After all, as they like to say in the South, “She ain’t from around here.” Shute actually is from Southern California, and she played basketball at the University of Richmond. Meanwhile, though she grew up on the Left Coast, both of Shute’s parents are natives of the Southeast. So I figured she was brought up right regarding football, which she confirmed.
“I grew up an SEC fan even though I was surrounded by Pac-12 madness,” Shute told me. “We don’t really consider that football.”
Yes, much respect for Miss Shute.
She has also done a lot of good work as a sports reporter at her young age. She was a writer/reporter for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids for 2-1/2 years before moving to Auburn to cover the Tigers. And that has worked out pretty good.
“My first day on the job the team’s star running back was dismissed, and now I’ll be covering an SEC Championship Game,” Shute said.
You can read both Shute’s reporting and that of Ferguson’s on SEC Country’s Auburn page. And she’s a great follow on Twitter @LShute13
So it was to Shute that I shot my five questions regarding No. 2 Auburn and this rather notable rematch against Georgia on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here’s what she had to say:
1. What’s your intel (or opinion) on Kerryon Johnson playing or not playing, and if he does how do you believe his health could impact the game? And what about the other running backs? Is there a signficant dropoff in talent?
Shute: By every indication Kerryon Johnson will play this weekend. The real question is just how healthy will he be? If he can be anywhere close to 75 percent, Auburn will again be tough to stop. Ironically, Johnson’s injury history is finally going to benefit him. He understands the treatment process and will do everything in his power to get as healthy as he can before he walks into Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With Kamryn Pettway out for sure (scapula), a relatively healthy Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s best option. If he can’t go, Auburn will run the ball by committee. Kam Martin has gained valuable experience at times this season and freshman Devan Barrett is a complete back (dynamic rusher with a wide receiver skill set). If Johnson can’t go, I would expect to see a little more of Barrett. Both are talented and capable, but there have long been concerns about Martin’s size.
2. What do you make of all the rumors about Gus Malzahn and Arkansas? The word this past Saturday was he was heading there if the Tigers lost to Bama. But is there any realistic scenario in which he does leave, such as if Auburn were to lose Saturday’s game?
Shute: In my opinion all of the Gus Malzahn to Arkansas talk is a little ridiculous. Malzahn’s in a tough spot because he came in and set the bar so high in his first year as a head coach. When the Arkansas conversation started several weeks ago, I could see it. Why would Malzahn want to stay on The Plains when he was scrutinized so much and surrounded by such miserable fans. Of course, two wins over No. 1 teams have Auburn fans seeing through orange and blue glasses. Suddenly Gus is the best and it looks like the Gus Bus could roll for a while. Malzahn has proven he has built a program with years of potential and realistic chances to compete for titles.
3. Since Auburn so thoroughly dominated Georgia in the last game, and decidedly defeated Alabama as well, is there any chance that the Tigers could actually be overconfident about winning the SEC Championship?
Shute: Auburn being overconfident is a huge concern. That was the case even before the Tigers were handed a No. 2 ranking by the College Football Playoff Committee on Tuesday night. I think Auburn’s loss to LSU in Baton Rouge was devastating enough, however, to keep the Tigers grounded. That, and the fact that a dominant defensive line has been, and somewhat overlooked is an advantage for Auburn. Also, quarterback Jarrett Stidham hasn’t won anything yet. But the Texas native is about as level-headed as it gets and is out to prove he’s the real deal. A win in Atlanta will help his case.
4. How pumped is the Auburn fan base about the Tigers being in this game and how well do you expect them to be represented in Atlanta and at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?
Shute: There really aren’t enough adjectives to describe how thrilled Auburn fans are for this game. Here’s a hot take: The Georgia game in Jordan-Hare Stadium was actually a more intense atmosphere than the Iron Bowl. Granted the Alabama win made for an incredible day for Auburn fans. But, in my opinion, when Auburn defeated Georgia all the possibilities of this season being a special one became real for everybody concerned. I think there was a lot of doubt about whether or not the Tigers could compete with Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban’s teams. After Auburn drubbed UGA, its fans were less intimidated by the Crimson Tide. Logistically, the drive from Auburn to Atlanta is nothing, and there are a lot of Auburn fans in and around Atlanta. So, there’s no question fans will turn out. It’s just a matter of if Georgia fans have left any tickets for anyone else.
5. What would you say is the single most significant matchup concern for the Tigers, whether it be an area or a Georgia individual?
Shute: The biggest matchup concern right now is Auburn’s backfield versus Georgia’s defensive front. That, of course, has to do with Johnson’s health and the backups who haven’t been tested as much. In my opinion, though, the less-discussed matchup concern is Auburn’s defensive front versus UGA’s backfield. No one in the Tigers’ camp has a lesser opinion of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, even after their lackluster showing on The Plains. I don’t know that anyone expects Auburn to shutdown the Bulldogs’ run game again.
I have been almost dead-on about my predictions for the Auburn-Georgia and Auburn-Alabama games over the last few weeks. This one is tough simply because Kerryon Johnson is being listed as day-to-day (even if we remain confident he’ll play). The SEC title game will be much closer than the first meeting in Jordan-Hare. I’m sure of that. In the end, though, I don’t think Auburn’s defensive front is a hurdle that Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm can overcome. The group is playing its best football right now and that won’t stop, regardless of how healthy Kerryon Johnson is. Auburn should be able to hold Georgia to no more than 17 points again and muster enough offense to get to the CFB Playoff. Auburn 27 Georgia 17