AN OPPOSING VIEW
ATHENS — Meet Justin Ferguson. He’s an Alabama native who went to Auburn and covered the Tigers for three of his four years as a sports journalism student. Now he’s covering the Tigers for SEC Country, and doing a fine job of it, I might add.
Ferguson’s pretty seasoned for a young guy. In fact, he told me his first football assignment for the school newspaper, the Auburn Plainsman, was to cover the Auburn-Georgia game in 2012. He called that game, “the lopsided one. ” He covered Aubutn football for the Plainsman and other outlets such as Bleacher Report, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and the Associated Press.
After an internship at The Sporting News and graduating in the spring of 2015, I returned to Bleacher Report as a college football writer for the 2015 season and the following offseason. SEC Country brought me back to the Auburn beat just in time for the first game of this 2016 season.
So Mr. Ferguson brings a young perspective to the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. But he’s all over the Tigers every day of every week, so he can definitely provide a lot of insight on the current team.
Now, on to the questions and answers …
1. What’s the injury status and/or general health of RB Kamryn Pettway and QB Sean White and how might that affect the Tigers’ offense?
Ferguson: “He’s not 100 percent, but Sean White will start Saturday against Georgia, according to Gus Malzahn. He made that update as plain as possible. Kamryn Pettway is a different story. He is expected to practice this week for Auburn, and Malzahn hasn’t ruled him out for the game. Pettway seemed upbeat on the sideline after pulling what appeared to be his quad on a late 60-yard run against Vanderbilt, but we won’t know anything for sure until Auburn’s first offensive drive Saturday.
“White looked like his usual self in the second half against Vanderbilt, so I wouldn’t expect any sort of drop-off for the passing attack. If Pettway can’t go, Auburn sounds confident in leaning on Kerryon Johnson. He was the starting running back for the first six games of the season. While he isn’t a big, bruising back like Pettway, he has big-play ability and a lot of versatility — he takes snaps in the Wildcat and lines up at slot receiver.
“If Pettway is out, I think Auburn will have to lean on White. Johnson hasn’t had the same amount of success this season against Power 5 defenses. Auburn can and has run the ball without Pettway at a good level, but the quick passing game would be a bigger deal without him against Georgia.”
2. How real was all the hot seat talk about Gus Malzahn in the preseason and at the start of the year and how realistic is it or was it that Auburn could make a coaching change anytime soon?
Ferguson: “I think the preseason hot seat talk was overblown. Auburn had a young team heading into a tough-looking schedule, so it wasn’t like he needed to win a bunch of games to keep his job. The way the 1-2 start happened changed things and make the talk more legitimate, though. Auburn couldn’t move the ball well at all, and that reflected directly on Malzahn. If Malzahn’s team can’t do what he’s best at, what would keep him at Auburn? The Tigers needed to show legitimate improvement on that side of the ball in order for him to stay.
“When Malzahn handed offensive play-calling duties to coordinator Rhett Lashlee, Auburn’s problems shrunk. The Tigers had balance and could score touchdowns inside the red zone. If Auburn would have slumped to a 6-6 or worse record with a lackluster offense, a change could’ve been on the cards. But Auburn has completely turned it around after that slow start.
3. What’s the word on longtime UGA assistant Rodney Garner? It would seem his defensive line and all those players he once also recruited for the Bulldogs are playing well for him. What about that unit?
Ferguson: Rodney Garner has been a huge asset for Auburn in the last several seasons. The Tigers are on their third defensive coordinator in four years, but Garner has been there the entire time. That consistency has helped out Georgia natives such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, and he’s brought his recruiting chops to get younger players such as Derrick Brown. The defensive line sets the tone for the entire Auburn defense. Auburn is deep there — it could realistically rotate a dozen players up front Saturday. The emergence of true freshman defensive end Marlon Davidson opens things up for Lawson on the opposite side. Adams has progressed to be one of the most productive defensive tackles in the entire country.
“Auburn can wear opposing offensive lines down with its depth up front, and that opens things up for Lawson, Adams and Davidson to cash in with big plays in the second half. This is also a strong run-stopping unit. Auburn has improved in all facets of its defense this season, but the progress of Garner’s star-studded line has made the biggest difference.”
4. How well is Tray Matthews playing for the Tigers and what do you think his mindset heading in to play Georgia in Sanford Stadium for the first time as an opponent?
Ferguson: “Tray Matthews had some issues early in the season for Auburn. On some of Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU’s biggest offensive plays, Matthews was often the one to blame with missed assignments or tackles.
“That’s changed in the last few weeks. Auburn rarely gives up huge downfield passing plays, and Matthews has been a constant back there with injuries to the Tigers’ other safeties. He’s become much more consistent in run-stopping, as well, delivering big hits on opposing ball-carriers.
“Matthews told reporters last Saturday that going back to Georgia “is going to be fun,” but he’s not hyping it up as anything personal. I think he’ll focus on keeping his emotions under control in Sanford Stadium and continuing to play consistently at a key position for this Auburn defense.”
5. Is there any area (or areas) in Saturday’s matchups that you believe Georgia has an advantage and why?
Ferguson: “Georgia has done a better job in recent weeks of defending the pass than Auburn. The Tigers gave up a lot of yardage in quick passes to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, while the Bulldogs played well against Vanderbilt, Florida and Kentucky’s air attacks. Auburn has been run-heavy as of late, and if Georgia can slow down a Pettway-less ground game, it can put a less-than-100 percent White in a bind. Can Jacob Eason hit the quick passes consistently against Auburn? That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing Saturday. If so, Georgia would be in a good spot.
FERGUSON’S PREDICTION: “A lot of this hinges on Pettway’s availability, but right now, I’ll say Auburn wins a tense game by a touchdown. Georgia is going to pull out all the stops against a big rival at home, but the Tigers have the advantage in the all-important trenches.”