AN OPPOSING VIEW
It seems I’m always lauding one of my fellow grizzled vets in the sportswriting business when introducing our weekly Opposing View guests. Well, not this week.
Ryan Black of Auburn Undercover, the 247Sports.com site that covers Auburn athletics, is a young up-and-comer in the business. This is not to say he’s inexperienced. Ryan has been writing about sports for a long time to be only a couple years out of J-school. And he’s somewhat worldly for his young age as well. Born in Athens, Ryan has literally lived all over the world as part of a Navy family. Namely Japan, he tells me. He ended up graduating from Elbert County Comprehensive High School in Elberton. It was there that Ryan got his start in journalism, working at the local paper, The Elberton Star.
From there Ryan went on to intern, work and string for multiple papers during his college years at UGA. That included two and a half years at The Red & Black and an internship with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012. That’s where I got to know and appreciate Ryan, as he assisted me on the UGA beat a couple of years back. After graduating from Georgia, he got a job covering Auburn at the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, where he stayed for nearly two years before joining Auburn Undercover in June.
Anyway, like Georgia, who is playing a lot of young players this season, I decided to go with youth this week. If you want to know what’s going on with Auburn football this week or every week, he’s a great Twitter follow @RyanABlack. And, of course, you can read all his (non-premium) at AuburnUndercover.com.
So here’s how Ryan answered the questions I sent him this week:
1. Georgia, and Mark Richt in particular, is getting vilified for losing three games and coming up short in the East in a season they were picked to win it. Is Auburn and Gus Malzahn encountering similar outrage among the Tigers’ faithful? And would you say they were overrated from the outset or has there been specific incidents that led to their situation?
Black: Fans are never going to be happy when you enter a season with such high expectations but fail to live up to them. As it stands, the Tigers head into Saturday’s matchup in the SEC West cellar. But I think the fan base is also understanding for two reasons: One, defensive end Carl Lawson, arguably the Tigers’ most indispensable player, missed six games with a hip injury. Second, Jeremy Johnson’s issues in the first three games were unexpected, forcing the team to go through a midseason quarterback change.
As to the “overrated” part of the question, I’d say they had far too many questions — new quarterback, new center, lost top two running backs from last season, plus breaking in a first-year defensive coordinator in Muschamp — at the beginning of this season for it to be fair to expect them to win the SEC and contend for a playoff spot. So of course they were a trendy pick by many national pundits/media outlets and then were tabbed the favorite to win the league at media days. Could they have lived up to the hype if not for Lawson’s injury and Johnson’s inexplicable issues early on? It’s certainly possible; at this point, however, that’s nothing more than playing hypotheticals.
2. How would you characterize the Tigers’ quarterback play this season and what happened to Jeremy Johnson in particular? Has Johnson got it figured out now or is it simply about Sean White not being healthy enough to play?
Black: Johnson has been inconsistent and underwhelming until last week’s victory at Texas A&M. There’s a reason he was replaced by White after three games, after all. White being less than 100 percent certainly accelerated Johnson’s move back into the lineup, but the thing to watch now is whether that opened up the door for him to regain the job permanently. In last Saturday’s victory, he finally looked like the player many expected him to be from the outset. There was no shakiness or uncertainty that typified his play in the first three games this season. With White still unlikely to be good enough to play this weekend, I think Johnson makes his second straight start.
3. What have been the contributions of Tray Matthews this season and how would you say he has fit in over on The Plains?
Black: Matthews has been a solid contributor this season. He’s started every game he’s played — seven contests to this point — and has 36 tackles, an interception and a pass breakup. He missed the Jacksonville State game with a shoulder injury and was held out last week with an ankle injury. He’s expected to play this week, though. His most important contribution might be his leadership, however, as he’s one of the most vocal players on the team.
4. Is the Prayer at Jordan-Hare still a big deal in Auburn lore or did it completely get overshadowed by the “Kick Six” against Bama the next week?
Black: That’s a great question. It is still a big deal, since the play helped keep Auburn’s division, SEC and national championship hopes intact. And it also helped the Tigers topple their second-biggest rival. But … it does get overshadowed by the Kick Six, no question.
5. Where would you say Auburn has some distinct advantages over Georgia this week?
Black: It gets overlooked a lot, but I’d have to say special teams. Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson has an FBS-best four field goals of 50-plus yards this season. If the Tigers get in the red zone and come up short, they have no problem with Carlson attempting long field goals. If this game is close late and hinges on a field goal, the Tigers will like their chances. Auburn also has the second-best kick return unit in the league, with Rudy Ford, Kerryon Johnson and Blake Countess all excelling in this area.
The other aspect I’d say Auburn holds an advantage is in protecting the football. The Tigers have a plus-five turnover margin compared to the Bulldogs’ minus-two.
Black’s Prediction: Auburn is coming off its best game of the season, finally looking like the team many expected to see from the outset. It should be a close game Saturday until the Tigers pull away in the fourth quarter. Auburn 38, Georgia 24