It’s Title Game Week for the Tigers!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

It’s Title Game Week for the Tigers!

Title Game

Will a Bulldog majority in Atlanta matter?
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! It is SEC Championship week, and this year, Auburn is in the game! The Auburn Tigers will face the Georgia Bulldogs, an annual opponent that Auburn has already smashed once this year, in Auburn, by the score of 40-17. I have to hand it to Georgia fans, ever optimistic, ever supportive of their program. They are behind their school, and have loudly voiced their opinions that Auburn wasn’t better than Georgia this year, it was just that the Bulldogs made uncharacteristic mistakes. Is all of that true? We will find out definitively, Saturday evening, in the new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The SEC Title Game will be televised nationally on CBS, and it will kick off around or a bit after 4:00 PM Eastern Standard Time.

     Typically on Thursday this year, I’ve done sort of a meandering preview of the game ahead, and what my worries for Auburn are. I also try to balance that with some optimism, and what Auburn might be able to do, to ride to victory. I wrote one of these, 3 weeks ago today. What a difference that short period of time has generated! We were hoping for the best back in early November, and expecting the worst. Instead, Auburn has won the SEC West, and in the process, has blasted number one Georgia and Alabama to the combined tune of 66-31! Auburn finished November 4-0, and is looking to add another Bulldog scalp to the Tiger collection.

     First off, most of the Auburn angst I’ve seen this week centers around a possible defacto home field advantage for Georgia. Secondly, the health of Heisman-worthy Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson is up in the air. I think it’s likely that he will play, as word out of Auburn is that there aren’t obvious bone breaks or muscle tears in Kerryon’s injured shoulder. That said, how effective can he be, and how vulnerable? Pundits like Gary Danielson do not think that Auburn can win this game without him. Me? I’m not sure I hold with that mentality. Auburn has other backs, very talented backs, who’ve shined in limited minutes, for the most part.

Concerns, and answers from three weeks ago, after the jump!

     I felt like Georgia was just a little bit better in the front seven, on defense, than Auburn. I’ve been proven wrong. Georgia had to blitz, to try and slow Auburn’s ground game and to put any pressure on Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. On the blitz, they were burned repeatedly on hot-read passes. Meanwhile, Auburn was able to shut down Georgia’s run game, and mercilessly hammer Bulldog quarterback Jake Fromm, mostly with just a 4-man rush. This trend continued against Alabama, last weekend. Auburn did not blitz Bama QB Jalen Hurts but 2 times. I feel like a possibly partisan Georgia crowd isn’t going to change what happens in the trenches.

     I had a big worry about Auburn special teams, and still do. Auburn did allow some big returns against Georgia, and had a kickoff run back 55 yards by Alabama. Furthermore, speedy return men get an extra step, on a fast artificial surface. That said, Auburn won the special teams battle against Georgia, as the only major factor for Georgia was a muffed punt that led to a quick Auburn touchdown. We Auburn fans complain about Stephen Roberts not returning enough balls, but I am thankful that he’s never given the ball over to the opposition while he’s been back there. Keep on keeping on, Stephen!

     I felt like Georgia’s offensive line was a little bit better than Auburn’s. Maybe so, but it did not matter in the matchup 3 weeks ago. The two lines don’t play each other. Georgia’s offensive line was destroyed up front by Auburn’s defensive line, and Auburn’s offensive line was able to stalemate the Georgia defensive front. Georgia was forced to blitz to slow Auburn down, and after some initial Tiger trepidation, the Auburn attack adapted, and took the Georgia defense apart. Meanwhile, the Auburn front seven made Georgia pretty miserable, on offense. Again, I don’t see any crowd advantage making any difference, here.

     Some new plays and variations were unleashed upon the Alabama Crimson Tide, by the Auburn offense this past weekend. Alabama was able to limit the Auburn running game, and force some 3rd and medium-longs. What Alabama, Kirby Smart and Georgia all like to do on those 3rd downs is to blitz the quarterback, and get to him before the receivers can even run to the first down marker. Sounds like a solid strategy, right?

     Auburn cooked that strategy against Alabama, by running an old Air-raid staple, the mesh. Alabama had some suspect nickel/linebacker coverage going into this matchup, and Auburn ran the mesh on 3rd down with Ryan Davis and Will Hastings, two of the fastest guys on Auburn’s roster. Some folks noticed, and were laughing that Hastings and Davis were high-fiving each other as they crossed, short over the middle. That’s a staple that comes from old Mike Leach football. The mesh is basically a legal rub/pick play, designed to beat man-to-man coverage teams have to use, when they blitz. The high-five is a tool to make sure the receivers pass close enough together to shave off their defender. Both receivers got open quickly on this play, repeatedly, especially on 3rd down. Jarrett Stidham took a 3-step drop, and hit those guys in stride for big gains, consistently.

     Teams, including Georgia, like to stack the middle of the formation, to try and slow down a powerful Auburn inside running game. Again from Air raid philosophy, Auburn has the perfect counter. It’s the quick screen, which in various sources is called the “bubble screen,” the “now screen,” etc. Basically, Auburn runs 2 receivers out to one side, and if the coverage is cheated inside to help with the running game, Stidham takes the snap and immediately fires to the slot receiver behind the line. Auburn has had really good blocking from Nate Craig-Myers on those for much of the season, but I haven’t really seen him get much credit. Prior to the November, Auburn mostly had only the option to throw this to one side. Lately, Auburn has been splitting H-back Chandler Cox out wide to the opposite side from Craig-Myers, and the threat works to either side. Against Alabama, this quick screen worked repeatedly. Alabama was forced to cheat outside on the coverage, which opened up lanes for KJ to pick up over 100 rushing yards, plus the option for Auburn to have quarterback Jarrett Stidham take off running and burn the spread-out defense.

     It has been intriguing, this year, to watch this offense develop. If one was to watch it and describe it, it’s a spread attack, to be sure. It incorporates wing-T running philosophy, and air-raid passing strategy. Auburn has an arsenal of trick plays it runs regularly, and then we have some under-center plays for short yardage and beyond, too. Jet-motion by receivers isn’t just a useless decoy with this offense. Auburn has picked up a bunch of yardage by handing it off to Eli Stove and others, on this motion. Auburn has even shown the willingness to run the jet sweep on critical 3rd down plays, making this motion a real headache for defensive coordinators.

     I feel like Auburn head coach Gus Malzhan has been brilliant, and aggressive in his previous SEC Title Game appearances. Malzahn’s offenses have scored 56 and 59 points in 2 appearances, and this is the most balanced and talented squad yet, that he’s had to work with. I would be shocked if Auburn doesn’t open up on the UGA defense with both barrels, again this year.

     We haven’t even really mentioned Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Since his arrival at Auburn a couple of years ago, we have not seen an offense able to consistently take advantage of his schemes, except maybe Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. That Sugar situation was greatly exacerbated by a really inept, three-n-out Auburn offense, in that game. Frankly, this year, Georgia’s not that complicated on offense. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is a guy I’ve long respected, in this league. However, he’s having to make Georgia go with a freshman quarterback. That limits what Georgia can install and execute. Georgia this year has been built to hand off, and hand off often to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. I can’t imagine that will change much, this week. Auburn won big in the trenches, in the first matchup. I suspect it will again, with the linemen actually looking healthier. I expect we’ll see a few quick first down passes, to loosen things up. That’s what I would call against the Auburn D, too. The bad thing for Georgia is that Auburn has the secondary to cover Georgia’s receivers, and they will clamp down, as the game goes on.

     Barring miscues of epic proportions, I see Auburn again controlling both lines of scrimmage, and strangling Georgia again. Auburn’s plethora of speedy skill guys will make big plays on the fast track indoors, and Auburn should be able to comfortably win again. The Tigers just have to ignore the pressure of the big stage, and execute again like they have the past 5 games. I’m confident that they will. We will have our usual open thread up Saturday morning, and we’ll be in and out all day. I’m a night-shift guy lately, so I’ll try to catch a bit of a nap Saturday morning, but I will be at the keyboard for my usual play by play come game time. I’ll be covering this one remotely, on my laptop, but that set up has not caused me any issues, in the past. The classic Thinkpad keyboard is world-class proven! War Eagle, and let’s kick those Bulldogs!

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