The Auburn Tigers. Georgia will play them in a few hours. And, I think you’ll agree with me here, we could stand to learn more about their football team. Also, brutal honesty again, we don’t entirely understand them. Like, as a social group.
So I called in a professional. Jack Condon is one of the editors at College & Magnolia, SB Nation’s Auburn site. He’s recognized as an Auburn expert in 49 states*, served as George Clooney’s frown double in two out of three Ocean’s movies**, and graciously agreed to answer my questions on Auburn’s was on the Bobo/Bo side, the Tiger defense, and how Auburn could pull an upset today.
MD: How big was that LSU win for this Auburn program? Was it a “proof of concept” moment for Bryan Harsin?
Jack: When you consider the historical significance and what had happened a week prior, it was a pretty big deal. Not that LSU is great this year or anything, but it’s still Death Valley at the latest possible kickoff (which actually seemed to help since some people didn’t want to be bothered staying up too late). Think about the fact that Tommy Tuberville won his first meeting with LSU in Baton Rouge, and then lost four straight to end his career. Gene Chizik went 0-2 there. Gus Malzahn went 0-4 there. For Bryan Harsin to do it in his first trip, let alone his first SEC game ever, it’s pretty special.
I don’t know if we can fully call it proof of the Harsin concept, but he certainly brought in a team undaunted by the road atmosphere, and whatever he did with Bo Nix last week worked out enough to where Bo had his best road game against a quality opponent ever.
Furthermore, the win came after what we saw against Georgia State (more on that in a moment). It was an important game for Bo Nix more so than Harsin. Nobody would fault Harsin for not breaking the streak in his first season. However, Nix was clearly rattled against GSU, although there were some murmurs that he was slightly injured at Penn State. With getting pulled, we really had no idea how to respond, and the discourse over the week leading up to LSU was all about who started at QB and how they’d fare. When Nix got in, he actually settled down, had much better footwork, threw good passes, and essentially won us the game on the road. Huge progression for him.
MD: How are y’all enjoying your Bobo-ffense? Is he running the dang ball?
Jack: There have been hiccups, to be sure. Under Gus, we would’ve run about 5 different plays against Akron and Alabama State, while we seemed to come into those two games with concrete strategies under Harsin and Bobo. The team was ready, deadly efficient, and the offense looked like it actually benefited from a little planning. Then at Penn State, all of a sudden we tried to go with some safe passes and a ton of stuff into the short side of the field. Tank Bigsby got his 100 yards and 2 touchdowns, but we had more trouble going into the middle of the Nittany Lion defense, and some of the play-calling was questionable. Against Georgia State, it wasn’t so much the offensive scheme, but the execution was horrible, and then last week was something else. 48 passes, 29 runs, with the majority of those coming from Nix himself on scrambles or draws.
I know what he’s trying to do, and he’s opening up the playbook to set up the run via the pass because everyone has stacked the box to stop Tank. I don’t know if we’re going to convince anyone that Bo Nix is the greater danger this year, so we’re going to keep facing these heavy fronts. In summation, we’re five games into the Bobo offense, and while it doesn’t look like anything in particular, I don’t think people have too many complaints about how it’s being called, they have complaints with the execution (drops, blocking, etc.)
MD: Is Bo Nix officially and forever more the starter at quarterback, or is there still some chance that we see TJ Finley if Nix struggles?
Jack: I think after last week Bo firmly established himself as the starter for the near future. Bryan Harsin has shown that he’s not averse to pulling the ripcord and going with someone else if it’s not working (see his firing of wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams), but Bo was good in Baton Rouge, and many of the shortcomings in the passing game were the result of drops.
Finley got a series in Baton Rouge, but it was definitely planned that he was going to get the third series of the game to show what he could do, because Bo hadn’t been bad up to that point. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw him again for a series in this game in the DJ Shockley role, but he’s not going to come in for a more extensive period unless Bo gets interception happy and we’re getting desperate.
MD: Bulldog fans should know about Tank Bigsby, but freshman tailback Jarquez Hunter has turned into a real weapon as well. Will Auburn try to run it into the teeth of the UGA defense with those guys? If not, how will they attack the Georgia D?
Jack: I don’t think Auburn can win without some semblance of a traditional running game, but I think you’ll see some of the things they showed in Baton Rouge last week pop up instead of pounding Tank and Hunter inside and relying on Nick Brahms attempting to move Jordan Davis. On our game-winning drive at LSU, a couple big runs by Jarquez Hunter were what got us close to scoring, and he eventually did get the go-ahead touchdown. Both runs came on tosses, with the big 44-yard gainer coming out of a formation we hadn’t shown all year, and so we were more successful when we didn’t try to challenge the middle of the defense. There were also a couple of really key third down conversions where Auburn leaked Shaun Shivers out of the backfield and let Bo Nix flare out a pass to him in the flat to get him in a one-on-one situation. We found ways to essentially run without slamming into the middle.
I think you’ll see more of the same, plus continued passing to John Samuel Shenker, who had the first 100-yard game for an Auburn tight end in 27 years (unreal), and Tyler Fromm, who showed off as a weapon at LSU as well. The Auburn receivers haven’t been anything to write home about, and Demetris Robertson has probably been our biggest weapon, but nobody seems to be able to get open or catch consistently, and I don’t expect that to change much against the Georgia defense.
MD: That Georgia defense has been the toast of college football so far this season, but Auburn is second in the conference in rushing defense, fourth against the pass, and third in scoring defense under Derek Mason. What’s been the key to that success?
Jack: It’s funny that you mention those numbers, because Auburn fans would all point to where the defense has really let us down. We didn’t need anything big from them in the first two games, but at Penn State the Derek Mason scheme allowed Sean Clifford to complete 29 of 33 passes, and we completely forgot to look for the tight end on two or three really key plays that led to touchdowns. PSU only ran for 83 yards on 33 carries, so that was nice, but when the passing game was clicking like that it didn’t end up mattering. Georgia State ran all over us in the first half (without our best linebacker), but after halftime the defense pitched a shutout and limited them to 84 total yards. Last week, we gave up 122 passing yards on the first drive. You read that right. LSU’s first drive started at their own 9-yard line, and they passed all the way down near the goal line before a bad snap pushed the ball back to the 31 and they completed a touchdown on 2nd and goal from there. Afterward, they scored no more touchdowns and Mason’s defense gave up around 200 yards for the next 50 minutes of game time.
What it came down to was different each time apparently. Against Penn State, we sold out against the run and never changed that up, so the rushing defense numbers look great. At halftime against Georgia State, I think the paint was peeled pretty well, and the defense started actually executing (and we got Zakoby McClain back from his targeting suspension). Mason said that we didn’t change scheme at all in that game, the players just started making plays. However, at LSU, we started running this defense treating the Tigers like an Air Raid team. At times we only had 1 down lineman, and the rest of the team went back to defend the pass. There was only really one big pass play after the opening drive, and the scheme change was the reason. Even when they tried to run, our very sparse defensive front made the play (that one down lineman made a tackle on a run play in the second half). All that’s to say, Auburn has a good defensive front, and experience throughout the defense, so that’s obviously key. Mason’s scheme is more predicated on players sticking to their assignments and being in the right position.
MD: Georgia State. What exactly was that?
Jack: You name it. Sandwich game between road trips to Penn State and LSU. Bo Nix maybe a little injured for the game, and thus not really stepping into throws. Georgia State selling out on the run since we thought we could win with that alone. No prep for this team in the slightest. Defense without their top player for the first half, then they magically play well when he’s back in for the second half. I think it boils down to nobody — players, staff, anyone — figuring that this would be a trouble game, and when it got sideways, they fixed it up. Unfortunately, part of that fixing involved benching Bo Nix and creating the biggest roster talking point in quite some time at Auburn. The team looked so markedly different in hostile road atmospheres the two weeks surrounding it, that I think most of us are chalking this up as one of those games. Thank God we didn’t actually lose it.
MD: Fill in the blank. Auburn wins this game if _____.
Jack: Auburn wins this game if we get a defensive or special teams touchdown, somehow get a lead and make Georgia play from behind, and win the turnover battle by +2. The first point is key, we’re not going to score enough on offense alone, but if we can bump up that total with a gift somewhere, then who knows. I also think that if Auburn takes a lead early, and can somehow keep it until halftime, then it makes Georgia go away from what they’ve been able to do all year and make Stetson Bennett try to win a game on the road in a wild stadium. Not to say he can’t do it, but he hasn’t had to thus far. And finally, the turnovers. Bo Nix hasn’t thrown an interception all season, but his good pick-less streak ended against this defense last year too. If he has a clean sheet, and Auburn can turn Georgia over with a +2 margin, they’ve got a good chance. Turnovers will make this crowd into a frothy mess, and Auburn doesn’t feed on anything better than that really lit Jordan-Hare crowd. (A little gift from the refs wouldn’t hurt either, BARN CHEATIN’, am I right?)
MD: Because we must: what’s your score prediction?
Jack: On Monday I would’ve gone with my head, Georgia probably wins 29-17 or something like that. Auburn takes an early lead, holds on by the skin of their teeth for 3 quarters before giving up the lead. Then a late UGA touchdown makes it seem like it wasn’t as close as it really was.
In my heart, which is where I’ll be mid-afternoon on Saturday, I say screw you guys, Georgia 19, Auburn 80 (gotta get a dig in there somewhere).
Thanks again to Jack for catching us up on the state of football affairs on the Plains. Here’s hoping for a good clean game (won handily by the visitors).
* The licensing fees in Delaware just weren’t worth it. Besides, it’s not like he’d be the first guy to barn without a license.
** For the one with Al Pacino Clooney did his own stunts. He’s an artist.