ATHENS -- At his weekly Tuesday luncheon, Mark Richt began by listing Auburn’s strengths, as he does with Georgia’s opponent every week.
Only this time, Georgia’s head coach didn’t have to search for any hidden gems. He didn’t need to skew any Auburn statistics to make the Tigers look more dangerous than he or others might already perceive them to be.
No, Auburn’s offensive explosion speaks for itself.
“They’re No. 1 in the SEC in rushing,” Richt said. “They’re No. 1 in the league in pass efficiency. They’re No. 1 in the league in third-down conversions.”
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Since Gus Malzahn’s return to Auburn last season, the Tigers have boasted one of the most potent offenses in the nation, so ranking at the top of the SEC in these three crucial offensive categories isn’t a new sensation. The Tigers’ powerful rushing attack -- averaging 286.4 yards per game -- combines with a passing game that ranks sixth in the nation in pass efficiency.
Both aspects of the Auburn offense filter through second-year starting quarterback Nick Marshall. On Saturday, Marshall returns to Athens for the first time since his dismissal from his role as a Georgia defensive back.
Marshall’s secondary-like speed certainly grabs the attention of opponents.
“He has the legs. He can run with the best of them,” cornerback Damian Swann said. “I think he found himself in a system where everything that he does, everything he can do, it fits him. It’s very hard when you’re playing against a guy like that.”
In last season’s matchup at Auburn, Marshall rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns against his former team. While the Tigers lost Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason in the backfield and left tackle Greg Robinson (No. 2 pick in NFL draft), they added running back Cameron Artis Payne -- 10th in the nation with 1,190 yards -- whom Richt deems the “workhorse” of the Auburn offense.
But as Marshall displayed last season, he won’t hesitate to throw the ball around the field if he’s given the opportunity to exhibit his uncanny arm strength, although he could be without his leading receiver D’haquille Williams (knee injury) on Saturday.
Auburn’s offense, designed around the read option, keeps many defenses guessing, something Richt, as well as defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State’s national championship game against Auburn last season, knows all too well.
“You better get a bunch of people involved in stopping the run, or it’s going to be horrible. When you do that, you get a lot of singled up coverages,” Richt said. “You get a lot of guys with the opportunity to make plays. There’s nothing like a play-action pass from a good running team.”
Simulation of Auburn’s style of play isn’t easy. Defensive lineman Mike Thornton said freshman quarterback Jacob Park is “doing an excellent job to try and mock everything” on the scout team. Despite his efforts, even a comparable imitation often won’t be enough to prepare for the Tigers’ up-tempo flair.
“Not many people have slowed them down at all,” Richt said. “When you run the ball, and that’s your way of doing it, you can control games better. You can get time-consuming drives. Even though they’re fast, they’re still pretty methodical about how they move it down field, just constantly trying to pound away at you until the dam breaks.”
Preventing those extended drives and allowing the Georgia offense to control time of possession, will key the defense’s ability to, at least, find a way to contain Auburn’s dangerous offense.
“It’s impossible to think we’re going to go out and stop those guys for negative 5 yards. That’s what they do. That’s the way their offense works,” Swann said. “We’ve got to find a way to get some stops, create some negative plays, to where we better ourselves to give us a better chance to compete on third downs.”