Head Coach: Kristi Malzahn's husband (1st season)
Offense: Up-tempo, run-first spread
Base Defense: 4-2-5
Location: Clemson without a lake
Last Season's Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Last Meeting: Dawgs 38 - Tigers 0
SBN Affiliate: College and Magnolia
Why the Dawgs will win: The Tigers paid a lot more than $180,000 for their improbable 2010 national title run. Despite following up that win with back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes, Gene Chizik's War Eagles fell to 8-5 (4-4 SEC) in 2011 and then to 3-9 (0-8 SEC) in 2012. These two years also saw back-to-back losses to the Dawgs by a combined score of 83-7, bringing Coach Richt's record over the Plainsmen in the
Deep South's Oldest Rivalry to an impressive 8-4. The Family saw the writing on the wall and wisely elected to fire Gene Chizik and replace him with his former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn will be reinstalling his no-huddle spread attack over Scot Loeffler's "pro-style system." (I'm using scare quotes because whatever Loeffler was trying to do didn't look particularly professional, stylish, or systematic.) Malzahn has also hired former South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to install his 4-2-5 defense in place of Brian Van Gorder's 4-3, which had only been in place for one season. If you're keeping track at home, the Tigers have completely overhauled both their offensive and defensive schemes in back-to-back seasons. That does not bode well for a team that finished 114th in scoring offense (13th SEC) and 65th (10th SEC) in scoring defense last season. Oh, and last year's starting quarterback recently moved to safety. lulz.
Why the Dawgs will lose: Think back to 2009. The Tigers rolled into Sanford Stadium, rushed out to a 14-0 lead, and carried a 14-7 lead going into the half. After trading scores in the third and early fourth quarters, Georgia finally took a 31-24 lead on a Caleb King TD run with just under 7 minutes remaining on the clock. Auburn took the kickoff and began a methodical march down the field, ultimately getting as far as Georgia's 23-yard line. With just over one minute left on the clock, quarterback Chris Todd threw a pass over the middle to Mario Fannin near the goal line to tie it up... but Bacarri Rambo flew in to knock the ball out, saving the win and concussing himself in the process. (Auburn ran two more plays afterward, but Bacarri's big play stopped the Tigers' momentum for good.)
That was Coach Malzahn's first year as Auburn's offensive coordinator and Gene Chizik's first year replacing Tommy Tuberville. The Tigers had been recruiting so poorly in Tuberville's final years that Chris Todd was the starting quarterback. Chris Todd! And yet the Tigers came into Sanford Stadium, held a lead for more than a half, and were in a position to send the game into overtime in the fourth quarter. Only Bacarri Rambo's selfless heroics saved the day.
But Rambo left for the NFL, and, despite Chizik's other failures as a coach, he recruited extremely well until the bitter end. Moreover, Malzahn himself recruited many of Auburn's current players specifically to run his system, including junior Tre Mason who somehow managed to cobble together a thousand-yard season last fall without any help from anything even remotely resembling a passing game. Mason will be joined in the backfield by junior transfer Cameron Artis-Payne, who rushed for 25 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards at Allan Hancock Junior College last season. Former UGA-recruit Nick Marshall won the quarterback spot during fall camp, and early reports indicate that he still has the same combination of arm strength and leg speed that made him such a coveted recruit coming out of Wilcox County. These three sound like a perfect fit for Malzahn's run-first system, and they're going to give opposing defenses fits.
On the other side of the ball, last year's team was wildly inexperienced and still managed to be average nationally. The returning starters will be joined by three five-star defensive linemen who could make an immediate impact, including end Carl Lawson who is apparently already giving offensive linemen fits in practice. While new DC Ellis Johnson's single-season tenure as Southern Miss's head man did not go as planned, his defenses at Mississippi State and South Carolina were always stout.
Plus Auburn's schedule looks to be pretty manageable. With cupcake games at home against Washington State, Arkansas State (Malzahn's former team), Western Carolina, and Florida Atlantic, the Plainsmen should be no worse than 4-6 when Georgia comes to town. They also get Mississippi State and Ole Miss at home, so they might sneak in another victory along the way. With bowl eligibility on the line against their oldest rivals, the Tigers will come to play.
Bottom line: As much as I hate to admit it, Coach Malzahn is probably going to turn things around on the Plains. I think it's going to take at least another year, though; there's just too much wrong on both sides of the ball to fix in a single season. The Dawgs really ought to win this game, but it might wind up closer than it should.
Prediction: UGA 38 - Auburn 24