For this week's beat writer Q&A, we're very pleased, and just a little bit lucky, to welcome in a familiar face, who's uniquely qualified to weigh in on this game.
Ryan Black covers Auburn for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, and the McClatchy media empire, just like me. So Ryan knows Auburn, but here's the other thing: He knows Georgia too. He graduated recently from UGA, and covered the Bulldogs for the Red and Black, where he earned the respect of the old harried beat writers like myself.
So let's dive in and pick Ryan's brain on these Auburn Tigers, and how they match up with Georgia:
1. So 9-1 overall, ranked No. 7 in the country, after going 3-9 last year and being picked fifth in the SEC West this year. Seriously, did anybody see this coming?
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Black: In a word, no. Not having been on the beat last year, I can't speak to much of what last year's team went through, aside from covering Georgia's easy 38-0 win last year in Jordan-Hare Stadium, when it seemed the Bulldogs could have named their score. But for anyone to say they thought the Tigers would be where they're at right now — especially at the beginning of the season — would be flat-out lying. (Of course, I'm speaking only for media members. Players or fans with overly-optimistic expectations might say otherwise.) In my "best-case scenario" for the team at the beginning of the season, I said nine wins were possible, but even I thought that was a long shot, as I was confident my 8-5 prediction (including a bowl victory) was far more likely. Now with nine wins already under their belt, the Tigers will be disappointed if they don't end up reaching double-digits, which is mind-numbing to believe coming off last season's dismal campaign.
2. Let's get into the Nick Marshall factor. His numbers early in the season were okay, but he's really taken off since Oct. 5 against Ole Miss. How much of that is a result of the competition (Western Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Arkansas, Tennessee) and how much of that is Marshall just getting comfortable and finding himself?
Black:I'd say a little of both, though more of the latter than the former. Everyone knew there would be some growing pains along the way, but as you mentioned, the Ole Miss game was really the turning point for the former Bulldog. Since that game (when he ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns versus the Rebels), he's been fantastic running the Tigers' zone-read rushing attack, turning in the keynote performance of his career up to this point in a 45-41 upset of the Aggies, when he threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns and added a pair of scores and 100 yards on the ground. Does he still have things to fine-tune in the passing game? I don't think anyone would argue that point. However, that should only continue to improve over time.
3. Other teams know Auburn going to run it, whether it's handing to Tre Mason, or Marshall taking off. Why has Auburn's rushing offense only gotten better?
Black:This goes back to the last question in a lot of ways. First, I'm not going to dispute that the Tigers haven't exactly faced a murderer's row of defenses (Texas A&M, Western Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Arkansas, Tennessee) in its past five contests. You're talking about three of the bottom four teams in the league in terms of rush defense at the moment along with a Sun Belt Conference foe in FAU and one of the worst teams in the FCS in Western Carolina. That being said, it wouldn't be fair to discredit how well the Tigers are running the ball at the moment. Yes, Mason and Marshall garner all the headlines — and deservedly so. They're the ones getting into the end zone, after all. But ask offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee about his unit's spectacular success on the ground, and he'll immediately cite how well the offensive line has opened up running lanes, as well as how receivers have been involved by throwing great blocks downfield. It might seem glaringly obvious, but that's because it is: No matter how good your skill position players are, it means nothing if teammates don't create some seams for them. And the Tigers happen to be doing that as well as any team in the country.
4. Let's say Georgia stacks the box and focuses on the run. What are the chances Marshall can burn them deep?
Black:Going back to question No. 2, Marshall is far from a polished passer. But if there's one thing he can do, it's throw the deep ball. When he does, he's locked in on one receiver all season: sophomore Sammie Coates. There's a reason Coates is second in the country in yards per reception (24.92), after all, and it's because nearly every time Marshall looks his way, it's on a route 20 yards (or more) from the line of scrimmage. That's not to say there haven't been issues in that area, as Marshall has overthrown Coates on deep, would-be touchdowns on numerous occasions this season. However, he's connected on them enough to keep defenses honest at this point. And while Marshall's deep balls earn all the attention — for the record, he's got the strongest arm I've ever seen in person — the Georgia native has shown that he can make the short-to-intermediate passing game work, too. Just go back to his game-winning drives against Mississippi State and Texas A&M and see how Marshall found freshman pass-catcher Marcus Davis on quick passes to the sideline time and again.
5. Is Georgia the most balanced offense that Auburn has faced this year, other than LSU? What's Auburn realistic chance to contain Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley or both?
Black:Crazy as it might sound, LSU isn't really the only "balanced" offense Auburn has faced this season, in my opinion. Though Texas A&M leads the league in passing, with Johnny Manziel's improvisational ability and its stable of running backs, the Aggies have shown they can run the ball, as their 29 touchdowns on the ground (tied for second-most in the SEC) attest. Ole Miss is nearly 50/50 between the two as well, running 355 times this year with 15 touchdowns) against 336 passing attempts (with 19 touchdowns). Where I'd say the comparison between Georgia and LSU is more apt is that both of them use more of a "pro-style" scheme where the tight end comes into play; the spread attacks of the Rebels and Aggies render the position an afterthought. And believe me, from his years as South Carolina's defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson is well-aware how much the Bulldogs like to get their tight ends involved — in fact, he talked about it at length Sunday night.
As for your second question, Auburn seems resigned to the fact it won't stop both Murray and Gurley; in most of the interviews this week, players and coaches have viewed it as more of a "pick your poison" approach. My take? They'll be fine if Gurley "gets his," since both Arkansas and Tennessee had no problems running the ball in the last two weeks, only to see it mean nothing in the end. If Murray gets going, however, there could be some issues, as the Tigers are paper-thin in the secondary due to injuries. Perhaps not coincidentally, the last time a passer was in a zone against Auburn was the closest it has come to losing since the LSU game: Manziel threw for 454 yards and four touchdowns on Oct. 19, with the Tigers needing a stop on the last drive to escape College Station with a 'W.'
6. An X-factor in this game could be special teams: Georgia has made some mistakes there, while Auburn has been pretty good. What stands out about the Tigers' special teams?
Black:It's easy to say after last week, but the Tigers have some of the best returners around. Senior Chris Davis might not always field the ball at the best spots on the field, but his athletic ability seems to save him every time. (Notice that his 85-yard touchdown against Tennessee came after he dropped the ball.) It's the same story with kick return, as running back Corey Grant is arguably the fastest player on the team. The numbers back it up: Auburn leads the SEC in punt return yards (300) and kick return average (26.7) this season. And look, I understand it's hard to ever say specialists "stand out," but the Tigers' senior pair is as solid as they come. Punter Steven Clark has only had four of his 38 attempts returned this season, while placekicker Cody Parkey has made 10 of his 13 field goals this year, with two of those misses coming from beyond the 50-yard line. Oh, and of his 69 kickoffs this year, nearly 70 percent of them have been touchbacks. Needless to say, Auburn won't be worried if this game comes down to a key play on special teams.
7. Finally: What do you consider the two or three keys to this game?
Black:1. Georgia's rush defense. Given how long it's been since Auburn had to win a game passing the ball, will they be able to do it, if need be, on Saturday? It's definitely a relevant question.
2. Gurley's health. Earlier this week, I saw the sophomore back said there wasn't a chance he was going to be close to 100 percent. If the Tigers see he's hobbled and unable to produce much, it will allow their pass-rushers to pin their ears back and focus on teeing off on Murray at every opportunity.
3. Penalties. Everyone knows how high emotions can run in this game. If it's close heading into the final quarter, it might come down to which team doesn't commit a costly penalty to extend a drive for the opponent.
Thanks again to Ryan for his help. And for more discussion of the Georgia-Auburn game, please join Seth's live chat Friday at noon here on the blog.