Why 2020 Georgia reminds me of 2019 Auburn ... and how that can be a good thing
“This defense, if needed be, could potentially carry this football team the first few weeks of the season.”
That’s what SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic said during an appearance on The Saturday Down South Podcast. Cubelic referred to an SEC contender who had a new starting quarterback with a new play-caller, but that team was also sitting there with arguably the best defensive line in college football and a talented secondary. As Cubelic said, if needed, the defense could do the heavy lifting while the offense figured it out.
That quote was talking about Auburn before the start of the 2019 season. But copy and paste that quote to now, and couldn’t you say the exact same thing about Georgia heading into the 2020 season?
As strange as it sounds, there’s a solid chance that 2020 Georgia could share a lot of similarities to what its cross-division rival looked like heading into last year.
Auburn had a new starting quarterback — at the time we didn’t know if it was going to be Bo Nix or Joey Gatewood — and so does Georgia with Jamie Newman. Auburn had a new/old play-caller in Gus Malzahn while Georgia has Todd Monken. Both of their offenses had major transitions ahead.
Auburn had a loaded defensive front led by Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown while Georgia returns the vast majority of its front 7 production from the nation’s top scoring defense. Auburn had a neutral-site game against Oregon to kick off the season with a massive showdown on the road to kick off SEC play. Georgia has a neutral-site game against Virginia to kick off the season with a massive showdown on the road to kick off SEC play.
See what I’m getting at?
Few people will make this comparison because obviously Auburn went 9-4 and Georgia is hoping to play for a national title. Auburn was picked to finish 4th in the division while Georgia will be picked to finish 1st or 2nd. Also, Newman is a grad transfer trying to run Monken’s Air Raid while Nix was a true freshman trying to run Malzahn’s no huddle-spread.
But in a way, Georgia fans should be hoping to follow the 2019 Auburn blueprint. At least in September.
Think about that comment that Cubelic made. The defense can do the heavy lifting while the offense figures things out. Now more than ever with these current COVID-19 restrictions, the Dawgs’ offense could undergo a major feeling out process. With that new-look offensive line, there might not be Heisman campaigns for Newman in that first month. But that’s’ OK.
You remember how Auburn’s 2019 opener ended — Nix connected with Seth Williams for a beautiful jump-ball grab to give the Tigers the comeback win.
Auburn’s Seth Williams called game in Wk 1 last season😤pic.twitter.com/fvYlWrZfX9
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 23, 2020
But do you remember how we got there? It wasn’t because of Auburn’s new-look offense with Nix, who was 12-for-30 with 2 interceptions before that throw. Auburn’s defense got stop after stop against Justin Herbert. Oregon’s drive sequence after that second touchdown made it 14-3 in the first quarter was exactly how Kevin Steele drew it up:
- End of half
- End of game
If Kirby Smart has it his way, his defense will have similar stretches in those key, early-season matchups. It might have to.
There’s simply no guarantee that Georgia’s offense, which is loaded with talented skill players with guys like Zamir White and George Pickens, is going to take off from the jump.
As favorable as it is for Georgia to open the season in Atlanta, they’ll face one of the nation’s better defensive minds in Bronco Mendenhall, who returns 81% of his team’s defensive production from 2019. It’s hard to imagine that Georgia would be on the ropes in need of a Nix-to-Williams type play to win it late, but consider that another reminder of why the Dawgs’ defense could be asked to be even more stout.
Some Georgia fans would say “we don’t need a reminder of that. Remember last year?” That’s a fair point. The Dawgs allowed 18 points twice in the entire 2019 season … and they lost both games. This whole “we’ll be the backbone” thing is nothing new in that regard.
What is new — and similar to 2019 Auburn — is that unlike last year with Jake Fromm, the offense is experiencing a total overhaul. It’d be stunning if it looked like an all-world level early with so many new pieces. And with established veteran presences on defense like Monty Rice and Azeez Ojulari, there could be times early in that first month when the divide is more evident than ever.
That was the case for 2019 Auburn after the opener, too. The Tigers’ SEC debut was in College Station against No. 17 Texas A&M. We remember Anthony Schwartz showing off his world-class speed with that 57-yard touchdown run, which was part of a 21-3 start (that dude can jet).
Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz is currently one of the fastest men in the world.
And he showed why on this 57-yd touchdown.
Auburn up 14-0 early at Texas A&M.
— Oddschecker (@OddscheckerUS) September 21, 2019
What we don’t remember is that Auburn defense going on the road and not allowing a touchdown for the first 45 minutes to win that game.
If Georgia’s defense goes on the road in its SEC opener and doesn’t allow a touchdown in the first 45 minutes, Smart’s entire upper body will be covered in bruises from all the chest bumps he’ll be handing out. Obviously that’s a much taller task at Alabama than at Texas A&M. These days, a shootout in Tuscaloosa seems more likely than a 14-10 game.
Nix, to his credit, did beat Alabama in a 48-45 shootout to close the regular season. Playing at home, however, Auburn’s offense was helped by a pair of pick-6s, and Nix faced an Alabama defense that had far more injury issues in the front 7 than what Georgia will likely see this September.
Having said that, Georgia would just love to get back to putting up 40-plus points against any SEC competition. Shoot, Georgia didn’t even hit 30 points in its final 7 SEC games in 2019. Hence, the offensive overhaul.
The expectation of this group shouldn’t be LSU 2.0, especially not in that daunting first month of the season. And actually, if Georgia’s offense is still inconsistent at season’s end like 2019 Auburn was, that would be considered a disappointment. One would think that the experience of Newman would limit that learning curve to September, as opposed to the season-long learning curve that a true freshman like Nix endured.
Auburn lost 3 regular-season games last year to top-10 teams … all of which were held to 24 points or less. After the defense carried the Tigers to that unblemished, battle-tested September, Auburn fans became all too familiar with a frustrating reality. The lack of development at the quarterback position held that team back. The Tigers were some quality quarterback play from having a much more special season than a non-New Year’s 6 Bowl loss.
Cubelic was right. Auburn’s defense was indeed capable of carrying that team early on while the offense figured things out. Georgia’s unit can do the same thing this September. It could even be the formula that lifts the Dawgs over the hump at Alabama.
But if Georgia is going to get where it wants to go, eventually, it has to bridge the gap between each side of the ball. As Auburn and Georgia learned last year, it’s playing with fire to put so much pressure on a defense to do all that heavy lifting for 60 minutes.
Besides, I’m sure Smart would like to hand out some chest bumps on the offensive side of the ball, too.