Ahhh.... that was the ticket, wasn't it, Dawg fans? That game yesterday was cathartic. I said in last week's On Notice article that "somebody's gonna have to get destroyed for (our performance in the WLOCP), and it might as well be the Wildcats. It's either them or us." Well, our team was apparently listening, as they went out and utterly and completely destroyed the Kentucky Wildcats, literally from the first kick of the ball.
Everything that the offense did poorly in our last game, they did perfectly yesterday. Zero punts, 8 for 8 on third down conversions, and every drive either ended with a Georgia touchdown or with us running out the clock in the half. Even the embattled Hutson Mason, who earlier this season had taken a stranglehold on the #2 position in the "on notice" list, had the best day of his career, finishing 13/16 for 174 and 4 TD's. In fact, Mason had more touchdowns than incompletions. That's very impressive, and for that reason, you will not be seeing Hutson Mason on this week's list (well, not directly, anyway). The defense still had a few warts, but ultimately came up big when we needed them to.
And do you know what that awesome performance on Saturday means? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Oh, I mean, it means something to us, sentimentally, and it also technically means that we're still in the race for some postseason honors. But today, that devastating beatdown yesterday means nothing. That's because we've got our oldest rival coming to town this Saturday, and they're a helluva lot better than Kentucky. The Auburn Tiglesmen have a juggernaut offense, a schizophrenic defense, and are going to be really ticked off after laying a Muschampian-sized egg against Texas A&M last night.
Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has had some great shootouts between highly-ranked teams in its past, and this entry in the series figures to be another. So, I'm letting the following people, places, and things know that, for Week 12, You're On Notice, Dawg!
In no particular order:
1) Steve Spurrier - Why Steve Spurrier? Because he hates us, we hate him, and because I have it from a very authoritative source inside the South Carolina administration that he's been trying to create a time-travel machine so he can go back in time and convince North Carolina and Virginia to play their first game against each other on February 19, 1892, thereby actually making their game the south's oldest rivalry. (In spite of the names that have been marketed and branded incorrectly, the Georgia-Auburn rivalry is actually the south's oldest rivalry. UGA and Auburn played their first football game against each other on February 20, 1892, while UNC and UVA didn't first play each other until October 22, 1892.)
2) Any fan who still wants to bench Hutson Mason in favor of Brice Ramsey - If it hadn't been clear through the first 7 games of the season (and it hadn't been), then there can now be no doubt: Hutson Mason is, in 2014, the best option to start at quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs. Mason has been making methodical, if somewhat slow, progress this season, but he had better-than-average games against Arkansas and Florida, and he absolutely broke out yesterday against a Kentucky defense that, even after yesterday's game, still ranks 19th in the country and 5th in the SEC.
Mason even threw a few deep passes in Lexington, and he continued his trend of "playing smart." Nobody's going to confuse him with the holy trinity of Greene, Stafford, and Murray, but he makes smart decisions when he's called upon to pass the ball. So far in 2014, Mason has thrown 3 interceptions. Let me list the QB's at the FBS level who have also started at least 8 games and thrown fewer than 3 INT's: Michael Cummings (Kansas), Travis Wilson (Utah), Cyler Miles (Washington), Drew Hare (Northern Illinois), Cody Kessler (USC), and Marcus Mariota (Oregon). That's it. That's the list. No SEC quarterback has thrown fewer INT's than Hutson Mason, and only one (Blake Sims at Alabama) has even thrown 3.
Hutson Mason, it turns out, is the "game manager" we need with the loaded backfield we have. And ain't nobody in the Butts-Mehre Building looking ahead to "prepping for 2015." We're still technically in the race for the SEC East, and we want to win this year. Right now. So, even though Ramsey has the better arm, I fully endorse the coaches' decision to keep Mason behind center. Ramsey's time will come, just like Mason's did (if he can beat out the other QB candidates in the upcoming offseason, that is).
But for now, today, and the rest of this season, Mason is our guy. And that's the way it should be.
3) Todd Gurley - Now why, you might ask, would I get so pumped and excited about Todd Gurley coming back from a 4-game suspension, only to immediately put him on notice before he even takes a handoff in a game? Well, it's simple: he's been off the playing field for 5 weeks now. That's over a month with no snaps "taken in anger," as the old saying goes. I know he's been practicing with the team, but there's no way he can be truly in 100% game condition this week. If Gurley were going to be called to tote the rock 30 or 35 times against Auburn, I'd be seriously concerned about his conditioning and whether he could hold up the entire time.
The good news is that Todd won't need to tote the rock 35+ times. Even if we do run the ball that much (which is highly probable, unless we get down big early like we did in Jacksonville), I think Bobo is going to go back to doing exactly what he did with great success earlier in the season: rotating Gurley and Nick Chubb on most series, with Sony Michel thrown in there as a "change-up" and generally wherever Bobo can find a way to get him on the field (like in the wildcat, for example).
And that's great and all, but it all hinges on one thing: Todd Gurley being ready for this game. And not just angry and ready to bust some heads, but focused on the task at hand. Auburn is likely going to race up and down the field on our defense, so we can't afford for Gurley to have a slow start. We can't wait for a series or two to find out that Gurley's "just not ready," and then go back to primarily Chubb and Michel, because we might be down 14-0 (or worse) at that point. No, Todd Gurley has to be ready to go from the first snap in the first quarter. We need him to be in the same form that he was when he was the Heisman Trophy front-runner, before the NCAA stole that prize from him. We need Gurley. And we need him to be at 100%.
4) Mike Bobo - And since I mentioned Mike Bobo in that last point, let me focus on our offensive coordinator for a moment. I feel confident that he's going to try to find a way to get Gurley, Chubb, and Michel all in the game as much as possible, and I applaud that strategy, but I also don't think we need to be getting too "cute" with our play-calling.
Auburn is 29th in the country in rushing defense, which is good for 6th in the SEC. We've only played 1 SEC team ranked ahead of Auburn in that category... the Florida Gators. How did our rushing offense work out in that game? I don't recall. But here's the rub: the Tiglesmen are 102nd in the country in passing defense, which is13th (next-to-last) in the conference. (Surprisingly, the only SEC team with a worse pass defense than Auburn is "your number-one-ranked" Mississippi State Bulldogs.) The Tiglesmen appear to be rather "streaky" in their pass coverage, as they've allowed the 3rd-most passing TD's in the SEC this year, but they've also taken down the 2nd-most INT's.
My point is this: we should run the ball, no question. But we have to be mindful of Auburn's holes on defense vis a vis the passing game, and we have to prepare our players to take advantage of those holes. Yes, I realize I'm saying, "DON'T (just) RUN THE DANG BALL, BOBO," and I (kind of) apologize for that. But the fact is that Auburn's pass defense is abysmal compared to their run defense, and we'd be crazy not to try to take advantage of that fact.
5) The Secondary - After 9 games, there's no hiding the fact that our secondary just isn't very good. On rushing plays that break out into the defensive backfield, we keep taking poor angles, and that's when we can stop the ball carrier at all. On passing plays, we get burned in 1:1 coverage about 80% of the time. I mean, it's Kentucky's fault that Patrick Towles couldn't hit his receivers in any quarter other than the 2nd on Saturday, but they were still open a great deal of the time.
And against Auburn, the secondary will be tested to the limit yet again. Statistically speaking, Auburn's offense looks a lot like the Georgia offense. They have the #1 rushing offfense in the SEC and the #8 passing offense (UGA's is #2 and #10, respectively), but the difference is noted larcenist Nick Marshall. Unlike our QB, Marshall actually has a cannon arm, and can chuck the ball downfield as far as you want him to throw it. (Some of you might remember this fact from last year's game.)
I'm just going to be honest and say that I don't think we will be stopping Auburn's offense much at all in this game, but if the secondary can step up and find a way to make plays in key situations, those could be the key plays that will hand us the victory.
6) The Defensive Line and Linebacking Corps - Winning big makes everything look good in retrospect, but if we try to look a little bit closer at Saturday's game, we'll see many of the same warts on defense that we've seen over and over this year. Repeatedly against our defensive line, we've seen opposing teams run the ball right up the gut on us for a consistent 4 or 5 yards. If you can't stop the run up the middle on 1st down, you'll be behind the 8-ball all day long, as our defense has consistently been during the season.
Part of the problem is that we don't have a massive body to stick at the nose tackle position like we've had in some recent years, but that's not the sole cause of our woes. Starting with the Florida game, and again against Kentucky, we saw a disturbing tendency to let opposing rushers consistently break to the outside and turn the corner on us. That's a job for the outside linebacker (and defensive end), and was ostensibly the reason that sophomore standout Leonard Floyd was benched in favor of freshman phenom Lorenzo Carter. (Floyd also supposedly had a "sore shoulder," but he traveled with the team, dressed for the game, and stood on the sideline with his helmet on the whole time. He was ready to play.)
Our defense has unquestionably gotten better as the season has worn on, but Auburn will be the best rushing offense we've seen, and they've got a legitimate passing threat to go along with it. If we can't stop the Tiglesmen from getting to the outside on runs, they're going to put up as many points on us as we put up on Kentucky.
7) Whoever is assigned to stop Nick Marshall from breaking contain - This brings me to the lynchpin of the entire Auburn offense: Nick Marshall. Everyone's favorite former-Georgia-player-who-was-kicked-off-the-team-for-stealing-from-his-teammates-but-no-really-he's-just-misunderstood. Marshall is Auburn's new version of Cam Newton; the new version of Tim Tebow. And, of course, he's not that new... we saw him last year. If you let him break contain on you, the next time you'll be seeing him is in the endzone. Unless you let him scramble around long enough that he finds that receiver that is certain to be open deep down the field against our secondary... and either way, the next time you'll see the ball is when the ref is holding it and the wrong band is playing "Glory Glory."
The key to this game for our defense is to get to Nick Marshall. Just like Tre Mason last year, Cameron Artis-Payne is going to get his yards, and that's ok, but we have to stop Marshall. Don't let him get out of the pocket. Don't let him scramble around long enough to find the open receiver. And don't let him squirt down the field to steal an easy 15 or 20 yards. If we stop and/or rattle Nick Marshall, we'll win the game. It's as simple as that.
8) Every Georgia Bulldog fan with a ticket - A lot of fans seem to be calling for the blackout this week, but I don't know if we'll see the black uni's on Saturday or not. (Mark Richt seems to think not.) Even if we don't, though, there's no excuse for every fan not to show up loud, rowdy, and in classic "big game" form.
This is going to be a 7:15 PM kickoff in Sanford Stadium. It'll be Saturday night in Athens. And this will be the first chance you've had to see your team play between the hedges in well over a month. This game is easily the biggest game we have left on the calendar, and it's against our oldest rival. You'll have all day to get good and "socially lubricated." As fans, this needs to be our biggest effort of the year.
This needs to be an atmosphere like the 2007 Auburn game. Like the 2004 LSU game. We need to have this place rockin' and rollin' from the time Brook Whitmire says, "IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT IN ATHENS, AND IT'S TIME TO TEE IT UP BETWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEN THE HEDGES!" until the clock reads 0:00 in the 4th quarter. We need to light this puppy up and let it burn until morning. I hate Auburn.
In conclusion, I'd like to hand the ball off to Early Cuyler and T-Pain (pronounced "Tuh Pain," of course) for the definitive closing remarks: