AUBURN, Ala. — 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 (plus one) about the Bulldogs before Auburn heads to Sanford Stadium for the first time in three years on Saturday to renew the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry.
Ryan Black: So let's get this out of the way first: Todd Gurley is coming back Saturday and he's going to start. Of course, Nick Chubb hasn't done too shabby in his absence. Earlier in the season, Gurley took the lion's share of the carries. Do you expect closer to a 50/50 split this weekend? Or will it return to the early season distribution?
Seth Emerson: Closer to a 50-50 split. Chubb proved what he could do in Gurley's absence and has earned more carries, and with Gurley's game conditioning a question after missing four games, it'll be better to not have him carry it 15-20 times in the first half. Even before his suspension, actually in the season opener, the play was to parcel out carries so Gurley was at his freshest in the fourth quarter. Gurley only had four carries in the first half against Clemson and everyone wondered what the heck Georgia was doing. He ended up dominating the fourth quarter.
Black: It seemed like Chubb has received a lot of positive publicity from the moment he arrived. But has he been far better than you expected? Or did you think he was capable of shouldering the load with Gurley out? Secondly, it seems Chubb is always compared (fairly or not) to his elder counterpart. As someone who has seen both of them regularly, how do their styles compare/contrast?
Emerson: Gurley is a bigger guy, about four inches taller and about 15-20 pounds heavier. But otherwise they're very similar: Both are guys that can run over you but also take it outside and then beat defensive backs and score on long runs. To answer the first part of your question, Chubb has been even better, but part of that is because he's had the unexpected opportunity to show it: Gurley was suspended, Keith Marshall wasn't his hold self and got hurt again, and Sony Michel missed four games with a broken shoulder. (He came back and carried it 18 times at Kentucky, but he hurt his ankle and is questionable for Saturday.)
Black: After losing three starters up front in Chris Burnette, Dallas Lee and Kenarious Gates, some may have though the offensive line could be a weak point for the Bulldogs. But nine games into the season, they've allowed only 13 sacks and have paved the way for the top scoring unit in the SEC. What things occurred to turn the line into a strength?
Emerson:I was one who thought the offensive line would be better this year, so this is a rare case of being right. Yes, they lose those three seniors, but in all due respect to them none were drafted, and have been replaced by good players who have either been in the program a couple years or have played. They found a starting five early in preseason camp and stuck with it. The biggest questions were how junior John Theus would do at left tackle, and whether the sophomore guards would hold the jobs. Theus has done well, and left guard Brandon Kublanow (a sophomore) and right guard Greg Pyke (a redshirt sophomore) have been important to the run game. And then you have senior center David Andrews, who may be the MVP of the offense, or the entire team, considering his consistency and leadership.
Black: Considering how solid the Bulldogs have been against the pass — ranking fourth in the SEC at 186 yards per game — and the Tigers' mastery of the ground game, do you think the hosts will stack the box and force Nick Marshall to beat them with his arm? And how worried are the Bulldogs about Marshall's ability to keep broken plays alive with his feet?
Emerson: Georgia's pass defense has been rather hit-and-miss, heavily dependent on getting a pass rush - which it can do with outside linebackers Lorenzo Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter. But playing an offense like Auburn can make it difficult to develop that pass rush. Meanwhile, Georgia's run defense had been dependably good until the past two weeks, especially in the debacle against Florida. That was out of nowhere.
But defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can look at what Georgia should have done against the Gators — have outside contain on runs — and employ at least part of it this week. He will also look at what FSU's defense did against Auburn last year, since Pruitt was FSU's defensive coordinator. I would expect a lot of stunts and blitzes, keep at least one safety back because they know Marshall can throw, and do their best to avoid the big play.
Auburn is going to score points, that's just a given. The goal for Pruitt and Georgia will be to limit the damage and give the offense a chance to win the game.
Black: You've covered many a game at Sanford Stadium. But given all the circumstances entering Saturday — Gurley's return, the first home date in 42 days, Nick Marshall coming back to Athens for the first time since his dismissal — do you expect this to be the most amped environment that you can recall for a Georgia home game?
Emerson: The Clemson game was extremely amped up, but there was an offseason to build up to it. This game, for a non-opener, has had as much anticipation as I can remember for a Georgia home game, considering the circumstances you mentioned. Marshall's return is an afterthought, but he'll definitely be booed. Gurley's return is the big thing, as the moment the NCAA extended the suspension by two games everyone knew he would be back for this game. Throw in the fact Georgia could clinch the SEC East by the end of the night — if it wins and Missouri loses at Texas A&M — and fans are going to be into it.
Black: Bonus question: How do you think Saturday unfolds? Think Georgia will hand Gus Malzahn the first back-to-back losses of his Auburn career? Or will the Tigers take a victory in Athens for the first time since 2005?
Emerson: I could see any scenario other than Auburn winning in a blowout. And that's what I said heading into the Florida game, and I proved to be comically wrong. It'll be interesting to see how Auburn responds mentally after that loss last week. I have a hard time believing Georgia won't put up a lot of points, especially by Gurley. And Hutson Mason has improved, so the chances he could do damage to Auburn's secondary is very good. For all those reasons, Georgia should be the favorite. But I have immense respect for Malzahn and Ellis Johnson (who was South Carolina's defensive coordinator when I covered the Gamecocks). So by no means am I convinced of Georgia winning.