Bulldogs Beat

Beat writer Q&A: Breaking down Auburn

Nick Marshall, Auburn (Wilcox County)

Marshall passed for 231 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-14 win at Kansas State. He also rushed for 46 yards.
Nick Marshall, Auburn (Wilcox County) Marshall passed for 231 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-14 win at Kansas State. He also rushed for 46 yards. AP

Ryan Black is my colleague here, now in his second year covering Auburn for the Ledger-Enquirer. But he's also unique qualified to weigh in on this big, huge, gargantuan matchup.

(Well maybe not gargantuan. But close.)

Ryan graduated from Georgia's journalism school a few years ago, and as a beat writer and sports editor at the Red and Black he still knows the Bulldogs well. Now he knows Auburn very well too, as you shall see. Thanks to Ryan for some very insightful and in-depth answers:

1. Auburn is coming off a pretty stunning loss, one which probably ended its national title hopes. So one of the questions this week is how much effect that has on this game. What's your read on it?

Black: This team has never had a problem rebounding from a loss since Gus Malzahn became coach; then again, the Tigers have only suffered four losses (against 19 wins) in that span. And the BCS championship defeat aside, last week was certainly the most difficult one to stomach for the team and the fan base. You could even tell how much it frustrated the coaching staff. On Sunday night, we had our weekly chat with offensive coordinator. Normally upbeat and willing to answer any question in painstaking detail, the 32-year-old got quite frustrated with the line of questioning regarding the two fourth-quarter fumbles that could have put the Tigers in the lead (or at least tied) in the 41-38 defeat.

But it says here that last week's loss won't have any effect on Auburn this week for many reasons. First, the Georgia game still means a lot to all of the Peach State products on the roster. Second, the Tigers would like to win by more than one-possession to show that last year's "Miracle in Jordan-Hare" wasn't a fluke and that the better team actually won (my take only; no one on team has said this.) Most importantly, Auburn knows it has to win out to have even a miniscule chance to be in the College Football Playoff. (It is still in the top 10 of the latest rankings and tops among two-loss teams.)

Is it a long shot? Of course. But if the Tigers don't win out, the possibility of getting a spot in the four-team is zero.

2. Nick Marshall can run the ball, obviously, but has continued to pass it better. Georgia excels on defense when it gets a pass rush and the QB doesn't have time to pass. What are the Bulldogs' chances of getting that pass rush against this offense - Auburn has allowed less sacks than anybody else in the SEC - or are defenses better off just worrying about the outside contain?

Black: It sounds strange to say that a team to go against its strength, as you mentioned about Georgia's defense taking it up a few notches the pass rush rattles the opposing quarterback. But in this game, I think it's better to worry about outside contain. As noted above, Auburn has only given up eight sacks this year. Two of those came last week against Texas A&M, with one of them being an instance where Marshall slipped and fell without an Aggie defender being near him. All the Aggies had to do then was touch the senior signal-caller to put another sack in the stat book.

Not that the Tigers' offensive line has been rock-solid, though. Marshall has seen pressure in his face a good bit this season. The reason the sack total is so low is because he's so darn elusive, he's usually able to at least get back to the line of scrimmage before he's brought down. That being said, if no one is in the area to take him down for minimal or no gain, you run the risk of Marshall turning nothing into something routinely.

Does Georgia really want to run that risk?

3. How big of a loss is it to Auburn not having Duke Williams, unless he has a miraculous recovery by Saturday?

Black: There's no way to understate it, honestly. It's a massive enormous giant gaping hole in Auburn's lineup.

Williams leads the team in receptions (38), receiving yards (609) and receiving touchdowns (five). He's also been Marshall's safety valve in a season where 2013's top receiver, Sammie Coates, has battled nagging injuries. When both have been on the field together, it's a nightmare for defenses.

Take Williams away, and this is basically last year's receiving corps all over again. (Hint: Expect Auburn to resemble last year's more run-heavy squad Saturday than the balanced attack they've tried so hard to develop this fall.)

4. Cameron Artis-Payne has replaced Tre Mason in the starting lineup and racked up a ton of yards. How does he compare with Mason, and how is Auburn's running game any different from last year?

Black: Mason and Artis-Payne are quite comparable. Mason was 5-foot-10 and weighed 205 pounds last year; Artis-Payne is 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds. Each are doggedly physical runners capable of breaking tackles any time they touch the ball. But for some reason, there seemed to have been a bit of criticism out there that Artis-Payne isn't the "home run hitter" that Mason was last year.

So let's go the stats I dug up: Artis-Payne already has 11 rushes of 20-plus yards this fall. In 14 games of a Heisman Trophy finalist campaign last season, Mason had nine.

One between the two, then, is that Mason was more involved on special teams, serving as the team's primary kick returner last year. (He averaged 26.3 yards per return and scored one touchdown; Artis-Payne hasn't returned a kick.)

The other change from last season? The Tigers don't have a No. 2 overall pick at left tackle (Shon Coleman is good, but he's no Greg Robinson) or an all-time great blocker at H-back (Brandon Fulse is fine, but he's no Jay Prosch).

5. Auburn's defense has been very good against the run, but struggled against the pass. How do you see that matching up with a Georgia offense that has been great running the ball but not as prolific passing?

Black: It's something I've repeated numerous times this week: Only one team has rushed for more than 200 yards against Auburn this year. That team happens to be ranked No. 1 in the country and have a dual-threat quarterback who's a top contender for the Heisman. And as one would expect, Dak Prescott was a large part of the reason Mississippi State ran so well against Auburn last month, as he accounted for 121 of the Bulldogs' 223 rushing yards.

This isn't saying Georgia won't be able to break the 200-yard barrier — or possibly top MSU's total. With Todd Gurley back and Nick Chubb available, it would be crazy to think the Bulldogs wouldn't want to pound away on the ground.

But ... Auburn's pass defense has been terrible the past three games. Utterly abysmal.

Check the numbers: 1,034 yards, 11 touchdowns, 63.1 percent (77-for-122) completion rate.

So I'm not saying the Bulldogs should forgo handing it off to Gurley and Chubb. It just might be in their best interest to let Hutson Mason let it fly a couple dozen times.

Bonus question: You know Auburn and Georgia very well. When it comes down to it, what do you think are the biggest keys for this game?

Black: It sounds simple, but it's true: Auburn can't turn the ball over. The Tigers have 14 turnovers this year, with six coming in the two losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M, respectively.

For Georgia, I think it will have to not allow itself to get frustrated defensively. Sure, they had one of the top rushing defenses in the country heading into the Florida game. The Tigers are a far better rushing team than the Gators, so they're going to get their yards and score points. That seems to be a given.

Given the history of this series and how these teams are playing right now, you have to expect a shootout, something along the lines of 45-38 or 42-35. In all likelihood, it will come down to which offense has the ball last.

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