ATHENS, Ga. — Auburn’s plan is to move quickly and put the pressure on Georgia’s defense. Georgia’s defense has struggled during the past two seasons recognizing and adjusting to plays.
Auburn’s offense is as balanced as any team Georgia has faced this season, averaging more than 220 yards per game passing and 230 yards rushing per game this season. Balanced offensive attacks with play-action passes have been effective against Georgia.
Auburn quarterback Chris Todd, rarely makes mistakes on the field. He has thrown 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season. Georgia ranks 11th in the SEC in pass defense, and the Bulldogs have just six takeaways — fewest in the country.
It all adds up to a daunting challenge for the beleaguered Bulldogs defense, which will be tasked with slowing the high-flying Auburn offensive attack without a ton of preparation for the job.
“It’s hard to simulate this Auburn offense,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They just go at such a tempo that you can’t get your scout team to go at that tempo. … It’ll probably take a little while adjusting to it in the game. We’ll be ready, but, until you actually do it in the speed of the game, it’s tough to simulate.”
It’s the pace that makes defending Auburn so tough. No matter how well Georgia’s scout team performs in practice, it won’t be an accurate representation of what the Bulldogs will face today.
First-year Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has introduced a few new wrinkles into the game plan, but the cornerstone of his philosophy involves keeping defenses on their toes.
“It’s very fast-paced, probably a lot like basketball full-court press,” said Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner, a former player and assistant coach at Auburn. “They do a lot of different formations, a lot of different looks. They don’t give you a lot of different personnel (groups), but they give you a lot of different formations out of the personnel, which stresses you out along with the tempo.”
The frenetic pace keeps the defense guessing, limits the substitutions and forces defenders to quickly read and react to personnel groupings and formations.
But the tempo helps keep momentum going for the offense, too, and that can create a whole new set of headaches for the opposition.
“Anytime we do (hit a big play), our team kind of turns into a different mind-set, and we’re able to pace people and play a little faster and make some plays,” Malzahn said.
Before the snap, it’s all about reads, recognition and communication for the defense. But after the snap, things don’t get much easier.
Auburn mixes its personnel, with receiver Kodi Burns taking direct snaps or Mario Fannin working as a tailback. The Tigers don’t lack athletes.
The style has substance, too. Auburn running back Ben Tate is among the SEC’s top rushers, racking up 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Auburn does a little bit of everything, and the Tigers do it all well, which puts even more pressure on Georgia’s defenders.
“They run with a lot of power, and they can make things happen if you’re not wrapping up and not tackling with authority,” linebacker Rennie Curran said.
Those fundamentals have failed the Bulldogs on numerous occasions during the past two seasons, and Curran is certain Auburn knows where to find Georgia’s weaknesses. That’s been another familiar theme this season. The chinks in Georgia’s armor have been exposed repeatedly, and the Bulldogs expect nothing less from Auburn.
“A lot of offenses copy off each other to see what’s working, and when they watch film on us and see our weakness, they’re going to do the same thing,” Curran said.
Curran said the onus of slowing down Auburn’s offense will fall on the veterans. They need to read keys, react quickly and communicate effectively. It’s a tall order.
But there is a silver lining to Auburn’s offensive philosophy for Georgia. For the Tigers to move quickly, they have to simplify things, too. That eases the burden on the Bulldogs.
So while the pace may be hectic to start, Curran knows that Georgia’s defense can dictate the tempo, too. And if the Bulldogs do it well, those dreaded matchups won’t seem so intimidating.
“Everybody has to be on the same page,” Curran said. “You can’t be running around looking at the sideline. … Looking at formations, you’ve got to be able to recognize things really fast. That’s going to be the main thing for us in making the game slow down.”