As we normally do, in preparation for this Saturday's 3:30 showdown in Auburn, I asked College and Magnolia's Chris Fuhrmeister a few questions so we can get a better idea of what we'll see from the Tigers. My questions in bold, with his answers in italics, are below.
Nick Marshall is obviously going to be the big story line this week considering his departure from Athens. Do you have any thoughts on that? And how do you think the extra emotions will impact his play come Saturday?
Honestly, I don't give much thought to his time at Georgia. Maybe it's because of the musical chairs we've had at the position in recent years he was our sixth opening-day starter in six years -- or maybe it's because he wasn't a star at Georgia, but Auburn fans look at him as a Tiger through and through.
As far as any extra emotion goes, I don't think Marshall will be affected. We've learned over the course of the year that he constantly stays on an even keel, never getting too high or too low. It's one of his best attributes. He does an incredible job of ignoring any surrounding distraction or previous success or mistakes and simply takes care of business.
Gus Malzahn has come in and immediately turned around what was a smoldering poop pile left behind by Gene Chizik. What is he doing that has helped get things off to such a tremendous start?
A major factor in this turnaround is the amount of talent on the roster. Auburn has a number of four- and five-star players left over from the Chizik era, and that's why last year was so frustrating. We knew the Tigers were talented; that talent just wasn't being developed. Gus and his staff are doing a much better job of instilling solid fundamentals at almost every position, and they're putting the fire back in their players. When things were going bad last year, we never saw any emotion from Chizik or his assistants on the sidelines. Gus and his coaches aren't afraid to get in a player's face when they've messed up, and I think that intensity transfers over to the play on the field.
Back to Marshall, he's only thrown 16 passes in the last 3 games, compared to at least 17 attempts in each of the first 6 games of the season (with 33 and 34 thrown against LSU and Mississippi St). Is there any reason Malzahn has abandoned the passing game aside from so much success on the ground?
Gus is most definitely a run-first coach, and if he could win a game without throwing at all, I think he'd try. That was sort of the case against Arkansas and Tennessee. He saw that Auburn could likely score enough points to win comfortably just by pounding it against two bad run defenses. And with big games against Georgia and Alabama coming up, he probably wanted to show as little of the playbook and look as one-dimensional as possible.
Now, I would be lying if I said Auburn hasn't had any struggles in the passing game. Marshall isn't the most accurate quarterback in the world (58.5 completion percentage) and his receivers have had their fair share of drops. So if Auburn can't run at all and the Tigers have to win with the pass, that will be worrisome. Although, Marshall pulled it off against Mississippi State, completing 23-of-34 passes for 339 yards, two touchdowns and two picks (one on a Hail Mary to end the first half, one on a deflection). On the game-winning drive, which started at the Auburn 12 with 1:56 to play, he was 6-of-8 and threw the game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left.
So it's possible that Marshall can win the game with his arm. But I'd be much more comfortable if Auburn were able to move the ball on the ground with some success.
Is there any way Georgia can stop the SEC's leading rushing attack led by Marshall and Tre Mason?
State was really the only team that's been able to so far. Those Bulldogs held Auburn to 120 yards on the ground, 93 fewer than the second-lowest output at LSU. They have a talented front seven and pretty much keyed on the run all night, which gave Marshall some open receivers and allowed him complete a bunch of passes.
I do worry about Georgia stopping the run. The Bulldogs' rank fourth in the SEC in that category, and that's another talented front seven. But, the offensive line and rushers -- not just Tre, but also Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, plus Marshall himself -- have been producing at an incredibly high level. Auburn's not going to put up 444 yards on Georgia like it did on Tennessee, but I don't think the run game will be completely shut down.
When Auburn does throw, they like to go long to Sammie Coates (who has more 50+ yd plays than anyone in the SEC). Considering Georgia's problems in the secondary, is that something we should expect Malzahn to target early and often?
Yeah, I think we'll definitely see a more wide-open passing game, and Coates will be the target when Marshall is looking to hit a big play through the air. The receiver has come up big, catching 26 passes for 648 yards (an eye-popping 24.9 yards per catch) and five touchdowns. However, because of a few drops and Marshall's issues with inaccuracy, they've found it difficult to hook up from time to time.
Other than the deep ball. Look for a lot of short passes to get the ball to players in space -- a few screens to Ricardo Louis are likely -- and there will be a few wheel routes and hitch-and-go routes in an attempt to get guys open.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ellis Johnson has helped lead a massive improvement over last year. Points per game is down (28.3 last year to 20.4 this season), while going up are both sacks (23 currently, only 22 all last year), and interceptions (Robenson Therezie alone has doubled last year's entire defensive total of 2). What has Johnson and the defensive staff done to make such a difference there? How much did Auburn fans laugh when Willie Martinez somehow got named the DB coach for Tennessee?
Again, this is mostly about fundamentals. In previous years, Auburn DBs didn't know to ever look back for the football, no one knew how to properly tackle and the defensive line had no mean streak. All that's changed this year. The Tigers will give up yards, but I think that's because Johnson would rather avoid the big play and have a chance to get aggressive in the red zone. It's paid off with the SEC's second-best red zone defense and best red zone touchdown percentage.
And while they'll give up some yards, they'll make big plays, too. The Tigers are fourth in the conference with those 23 sacks, second in tackles for loss (73) and fourth in interceptions (11).
How do you expect Auburn to attempt to stop Todd Gurley on the ground without exposing things to Aaron Murray throwing the ball?
Ah yes, this will be a problem for Auburn, won't it? Honestly, I have no idea. Auburn's linebackers have been suspect all year, which is going to be trouble against Gurley, and while I think the Tigers can avoid the big play through the air, Murray will be able to move the ball. My only hope is that Auburn continues its trend of creating big plays and locking down in the red zone. And Johnson has made excellent adjustments throughout games this year, so hopefully we'll see more of that too.
Georgia has had significant issues covering kicks, while Auburn is arguably the best in the conference returning kicks. Do you need a rag to wipe away the drool? What are the chances of the Tigers scoring a special teams TD?
I have never seen anything like what Auburn was able to do against Tennessee last Saturday. I mean, the Vols were stunningly bad in all aspects of special teams, other than place-kicking. I can't imagine Georgia will be that bad, but in what should be a close game, I'm hoping the Tigers can get some extra yards and maybe some momentum with big returns.
Auburn already has nine wins after a nine-loss season in 2012, and it's pretty unbelievable. I never thought Gus would have this team so successful so quickly, but after what I've seen this year, I have no reason to doubt the Tigers. I really could see this one going a number of different ways, but I'll take the home team in a close contest. Maybe a red zone stop at some point in the game will be the difference. Auburn 35, Georgia 31.
Thanks to Chris, and of course...