AUBURN, Ala. — It's a little later than normal, but as we do every Thursday evening, the War Eagle Extra blog was able to track down a beat writer for Auburn's opponent this weekend. Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson) covers Georgia for the Ledger-Enquirer and our sister paper in Macon, The Telegraph. He took time to answer five questions about the Bulldogs before they come to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday to renew the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry.
Ryan Black: Let’s say Todd Gurley doesn’t miss the games against Missouri and Vanderbilt, both losses. How different does Georgia’s season look right now?
Seth Emerson: Very differently, I think, and so do a lot of people around the program. Here’s a stat I dug up this week: Georgia’s offense averages 7.5 yards per play on drives in which Gurley touches the ball at least once. It drops to 5.9 on drives he doesn’t. The offense is just that much better with him. His replacements, Brendan Douglas and J.J. Green, did a noble job in his absence, but they’re freshmen who weren’t even supposed to be playing this year.
Obviously you can never say for sure, but the guess here is Georgia definitely beats Vanderbilt with a healthy Gurley, and may have turned around the Missouri result, too. Heck, people forget that Gurley left the Clemson game for several drives because of a sore quad, so that game may have turned out differently, too. Of course, Gurley isn't the only injury (top backup Keith Marshall and all those receivers), but Gurley is clearly the most important one.
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Black: Aaron Murray is now entering the final stretch of his illustrious college career. Compared to previous seasons, how does this one stack up? Many might note how many injuries he’s had to deal with this year as far as his pass-catchers are concerned, but I recall that was the story last year, too. And though he would never discuss it at length publicly, how much do you think it bothers him knowing he’ll leave Athens with countless conference and school records, but no ring to show for his efforts?
Emerson: It definitely bothers him. It’s one of the main reasons he came back. But as you said he’ll never really say so publicly, because that’s just how Murray is. He’s a happy-go-lucky, eternally optimistic kid. He also genuinely enjoys the college experience more than most people, so despite the disappointment of this season, I believe him when he says he doesn’t regret coming back.
This season is probably Murray’s most impressive, considering what he’s had to deal with injury-wise. Last year he did lose two receivers to season-ending injuries, but they both happened after the fifth game. This year he lost his top receiver (Malcolm Mitchell) on the second drive of the season, then his top deep threat (Justin Scott-Wesley) in game five. Throw in the multiple-game injuries to Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, and it’s been an adventure. Maybe the most impressive thing Murray has done all season is lead Georgia to a game-tying touchdown drive at Tennessee, with all of the above players except Conley, and without Gurley or Marshall.
Murray isn’t going to win a national championship (and probably not an SEC championship), and he’s not going to be first-team all-SEC (probably). But the one thing he’s gotten out of this season is ending the whole question of whether he can win big games. South Carolina and LSU took care of that, and he has another chance Saturday at Auburn.
Black: Speaking of the passing game, when you take a look at Georgia’s stats, no receiver is dominating in any category. Is this another one of those “by-committee” approaches for the Bulldogs’ receiving corps? Was Malcolm Mitchell expected to be the go-to guy this season if he hadn’t torn his ACL in the Clemson game? And as it pertains to Saturday, who does Murray look to if he has to toss a game-winning pass?
Emerson: Mainly chalk it up to the injuries. Mitchell was the best receiver, and if he was healthy the whole way he almost certainly would have led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. But Bennett is pretty good too, and overall the receiving corps is deep. Plus, Murray as an experienced starter means he knew how to pass the ball around.
The go-to receiver on most plays will be Bennett. He caught a number of key third-down passes at Florida. But in a pinch other guys can catch the big pass, too. For instance when Murray needed a third-down conversion to seal the Florida game, he hit former walk-on Rhett McGowan. And if Conley is able to go on Saturday, he’s another option.
Black: Linebacker Ramik Wilson is leading the SEC in both total tackles (92) and tackles per game (10.4). In his two previous seasons combined, he had only 10 (!!!) takedowns. Did the coaching staff predict a season like this was in the offing, or has this incredible uptick in production seemingly happened overnight?
Emerson: Wilson stepped into the inside linebacker spot vacated by Alec Ogletree. Even with the stats that Wilson has put up, there’s no denying that there’s a drop in overall talent there. Georgia’s defense has really struggled without having an Ogletree or a Jarvis Jones, two guys who fly around and make plays and have that ability to make big impact plays. Wilson is more of a tackle machine, though he has started to make some plays, and has two sacks.
Black: Auburn’s coaching staff has been talking up Georgia’s defense all week, saying the Bulldogs might be “the most talented” they’ve faced this season. All that comes to my mind, however, is seeing how many points the unit has allowed (30 or more in every SEC game aside from the Florida victory) and how many issues it has had defending the pass. Having seen every game they’ve played, what’s your take? And what kind of problems do you expect them to pose for the Tigers in Saturday’s contest?
Emerson: There’s talent on this defense, but it’s still mostly raw and has yet to come together. Statistically, Georgia ranks fifth in the SEC in total yardage. I don’t think it’s the fifth-best defense in the SEC. But it’s not the worst either. The main problem has been the pass defense, mainly on third downs, though there’s been improvement there the past couple games. (It helps to face Florida’s woeful offense and Appalachian State. The other issue is not forcing turnovers: Georgia ranks dead last in the SEC in turnovers forced, with just nine.
What should worry Auburn? The pass rush has been pretty good, and Georgia ranks second in the SEC with 23 sacks. Here’s a crazy stat: Four Georgia players (Ray Drew, Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, Garrison Smith) have more sacks than Jadeveon Clowney this year.
But the more interesting stat is this one: Georgia’s run defense ranks 20th nationally, which makes it the best run defense (statistically) that Auburn has faced this season. Mississippi State (34rd) and LSU (51st) are the next two. Now, I’m not saying Georgia will shut down Nick Marshall, Tre Mason and company. But the Bulldogs have a chance to contain the Tigers enough to give Murray, Gurley and company a chance to win the game.