3 key advantages No. 7 Auburn has over No. 4 Georgia
It’s the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. It’s the first game of the 2020 season pitting two top-10 teams against one another and it’s the site of ESPN’s College GameDay. The Auburn-Georgia game ought to be the highlight of October’s opening weekend.
Both teams won their opener despite slow first-half starts. No. 7 Auburn might have one of the SEC’s highest ceilings but also the lowest floor among the contenders. No. 4 Georgia was a shoo-in for many out of the East, but until a QB settles in, that’s far from guaranteed.
Saturday’s game in Athens should be close, but 3 areas stand out that give the Tigers a slight edge and chance to end their 3-game losing streak to the Bulldogs.
Year 2 of Bo Nix is looking much better than Game 2 of whatever QB Georgia trots out (likely JT Daniels). Nix’s first half against Kentucky was a little slow (6-of-11 for 90 yards), but in the second half he displayed much of the growth that fans had hoped to see under new OC Chad Morris, finishing 16-of-27 for 233 yards, 3 touchdowns, and most important, 0 interceptions.
Auburn finished an SEC game without a turnover for the first time since it beat Texas A&M last September, and Nix now owns the nation’s second-longest streak without an interception (218 passes), trailing only Trevor Lawrence.
Nix looked mature. On several occasions he turned plays that would have been negative yardage, a sack or a jump ball last season, into smarter decisions that didn’t put the Tigers and their defense on their heels.
Perhaps no play better demonstrated his new-found composure than a 2nd-and-8 pass in the 3rd quarter when Nix stepped forward in a collapsing pocket. With a Kentucky defender draped on his back, Nix hit Eli Stove for a modest 12-yard gain.
@Zblackerby mentioned that he felt Nix looked like an NFL QB on his TD to Eli Stove. I submit this for your consideration. Motion presnap to ID soft zone outside, steps up in the pocket with good eye discipline, and delivers a dart with trash all around him. Legit pro stuff. pic.twitter.com/yEHWQ0U2HE
— Andrew Stanley (@SanAndreasAU) September 27, 2020
Georgia’s defense will undoubtedly deliver more pressure than Kentucky’s, especially as Auburn continues to rotate 7 guys through its offensive line.
The Tigers will also need to find a better option in the run game for Nix to maintain his success. Nix led the team with 34 yards rushing against Kentucky, and if the Bulldogs are able to solely focus on Auburn’s pass game, it could be a long day.
Meanwhile in Athens, it appears the Bulldogs are no closer to having a permanent starting QB than they were this time a week ago.
Monday’s news that JT Daniels had been medically cleared to play this weekend initially seemed like it would play a heavy into factoring on Saturday’s starter, but Kirby Smart was quick to halt that momentum.
“JT will be cleared,” Smart said. “But I don’t know how much that changes the picture in terms of reps and development. We’ll be looking at everybody across the board. JT’s got to be able to show us that he can function efficiently and do it with his knee.”
Of course, that could be nothing more than gamesmanship. Daniels is the most accomplished QB Georgia has. But if it is indeed back to one of the two guys who played vs. Arkansas, the logical choice would seem to be Stetson Bennett considering D’Wan Mathis’ 6 drives resulted in 5 punts, an interception and 0 points.
With Bennett’s most pressurized game probably being a 2018 MACJC championship game, compared to the experience Nix has in crunch time against the likes of Oregon and an entire SEC slate, Auburn has a clear advantage under center.
Kevin Steele and Co. vs. Bulldogs’ offensive line
Given the losses of Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, it might seem like it would be a bit of a stretch to say Kevin Steele’s defense has the edge against Georgia’s offensive line.
Georgia needed 39 minutes to score a touchdown against an Arkansas defense that ranked 124th in points allowed in 2019. Part of the reason Mathis and Bennett (less so) struggled was an inability to get the run game going.
The Bulldogs’ offensive line was an ongoing project against the Hogs as OC Todd Monken rotated several players out of their normal spots in an effort to win the line of scrimmage. With no spring practices in a new offense to execute, the impact was clear.
Each of Georgia’s first 4 possessions began with a run of 3 or fewer yards, putting Mathis with less-than-ideal scenarios to move the chains.
It wasn’t until Bennett came in and found some success passing the ball that the run game opened up. Both of Zamir White’s longest carries of 13 and 20 yards came in the second half when Bennett was in and the offense was able to run more tempo.
Finding much success in the run game, however, could be a challenge. Auburn held Kentucky to just 145 yards rushing on 3.6 yards per carry, a year removed from having the 4th-best run attack in the nation averaging 279 yards a game and 6.4 yards per carry.
Aside from a Kavosiey Smoke 35-yard run for a score on the game’s opening drive, the Auburn front 7 settled in nicely, particularly in the red zone where it held the Wildcats to just 1 score on 3 tries (say what you will about the run at the end of the first half).
Twice in the 4th quarter with the game on the line, the Tigers’ defense forced 2 fumbles, one of which set up a short field for Nix and Seth Williams to connect on a 4-yd TD pass and a 22-13 lead.
Georgia’s receivers are more of a concern than Kentucky’s, but if the Tigers limit the run game and don’t give the Georgia QB time, that’s a moot point.
By now, you’ve likely seen them. The plays speak for themselves
Seth Williams went 🆙 pic.twitter.com/kHeBAQKwBr
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 26, 2020
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 26, 2020
Two incredible touchdowns. Two catches that only Seth Williams could make.
Circling back to the Nix-maturation point, note that even the possibility of these plays occurring last season probably wouldn’t have happened. Nix has more trust in his wideouts now and a better understanding of where to put his passes.
“It was off (Nix’s) back foot and he put it in the only place it could be,” Malzahn said of the first TD. “Seth went up and made an unbelievable play.”
Williams is in no way a shocking addition to the Auburn offense. In 2019 he had 59 catches for 830 yards and 8 touchdowns, but in a season with one of the deepest WR classes that included 3 SEC standouts who went on to be NFL first-rounders and a 4th who won the Biletnikoff Award, it was easy for folks outside of Auburn to let the 6-3 junior fly a little under the radar.
Williams finished Saturday with 6 catches for 112 yards and those 2 scores and will be the biggest weapon for either team this weekend, even with George Pickens lined up for the Bulldogs.
Pickens scored once on 4 catches against Arkansas, but a receiver only has value if there’s a QB who can get him the ball.
Williams will likely be matched up with Georgia’s Eric Stokes for most of the game, which should prove to be one of the more compelling individual matchups of the weekend.