7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Georgia -6.5, Over/Under: 44.5
With the return of the SEC comes the inevitable return of Top-10 matchups, with one such affair taking place between the hedges tonight as the No. 7 Auburn Tigers battle the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs from Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. After successive 8-5 and 9-4 campaigns, Auburn (1-0, 1-0 in SEC) looks to make it’s play within the always competitive SEC, particularly the West Division, in which both Alabama and LSU call home. It’s been four years since the Tigers represented the West and eight since they won the league altogether, though given the volume of turnover that has occurred within the conference, they appear positioned to ascend. After all, both the Crimson Tide and Bayou Bengals saw prolific Quarterbacks selected within the top five picks of the 2020 NFL Draft, while also losing a wealth of talent on both sides of the football, with Georgia also saying goodbye to longtime starter, Jake Fromm. Also out west, both Mississippi and Mississippi State are welcoming new Head Coaches, leaving War Eagle as one of the few southeastern powerhouses to maintain a sense of continuity under Center and on the sidelines.
Now in his eighth season at Auburn, the program is clearly in good hands with Gus Malzahn, who has guided his charges to a 63-31 (.670) record since arriving back in 2103, including a trip to the BCS National Championship Game in 2013 and an appearance in the SEC Championship in 2017. However, last season was spent largely breaking in a host of new faces, particularly at Quarterback where Bo Nix (59.3%, 233 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 3 TD, 0 INT, 168.4 RATE) became the first True Freshman to start at the position from day one. A second generation athlete, Nix experienced his ups and downs in 2019, completing 57.6% of his attempts for 2,542 yards on 6.7 yards per attempt, with sixteen touchdowns in comparison to six interceptions, while also proving to be very capable of making plays with his feet, rushing for another 313 yards and seven scores en route to earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors. His performance in the second half of his debut against Oregon (13/31, 177 YDS, 2 TD, 2 INT) was excellent, as was his poise in the Iron Bowl against Alabama (15/30, 173 YDS, 1 TD), but he struggled mightily on the road at both Florida (11/27, 145 YDS, 1 TD, 3 INT) and LSU (15/35, 157 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT), as well as his first meeting with Georgia, a a 21-14 loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Trailing 21-0 at the end of three quarters, the hosts finally got into some rhythm, running off fourteen unanswered points in the final stanza, but simply couldn’t do anymore than that. With the running game relegated to just eighty-four yards on thirty-six carries, Nix was forced to throw a career-high FIFTY passes, completing thirty for 245 yards and a touchdown, though was sacked twice and lost a crucial fumble. He has plenty of experience returning alongside him in the Receiving Corps, with Seth Williams (6 REC, 112 YDS, 18.7 Y/R, 2 TD), Anthony Schwartz (3 REC, 40 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 0 TD), and Eli Stove (4 REC, 55 YDS, 13.8 Y/R, 1 TD) bringing plenty of speed to what should be a much-improved aerial attack. Williams in particular is a threat, having led the group with fifty-nine receptions, 830 yards, and eight touchdowns, while averaging a healthy 14.1 yards per catch in 2019. Furthermore at 6-3, 211 lbs he possesses the requisite size to go up and win jump balls, making him a dangerous weapon for the Tigers in the Red Zone. It will be interesting to see how Malzahn replaces last year’s leading rusher, JaTarvious Whitlow, who paced the Backfield with 763 rushing yards and ten touchdowns. Sophomore, D.J. Williams (8 CAR, 21 YDS, 2.6 Y/C, 1 TD) figures to get the first crack at being the team’s bellcow, with Malzahn no doubt expecting he (or someone else for that matter) to carry on the rich tradition of Auburn Tailbacks.
“He’s like a professional quarterback, not panicking, getting through his reads and just being able to throw the ball under pressure, throwing accurate balls… I don’t think there was one that wasn’t a great pass (Saturday). When the pressure came he didn’t try to unnecessarily roll out. He just sat in there and got the throws off. I think he was very locked in and very poised.Anthony Schwartz, Auburn Wide Receiver
With that said, it was made quite clear that the running game would not be keying them to victory in their Season Opener against No. 23 Kentucky last weekend, for that facet of the Offense could never get into gear against the Wildcats’ staunch defensive front. It wasn’t for a lack of trying as the Tigers could manage only ninety-one yards on thirty carries, but thankfully for everyone at Jordan-Hare Stadium, their young Quarterback stepped up in a major way. Leading just 8-7 at halftime, and 15-13 later in the third quarter, the aforementioned Nix drove Auburn down the field for consecutive touchdown drives in the final frame of play, finding his favorite target, Williams, for a 4-yard score, followed by a 21-yard strike to Stove to put the affair out of reach, eventually ending in a 29-13 victory. In the end, the Sophomore signal-caller completed 16-of-27 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns, extending a personal streak of 218 passes without an interception, a school record. However, Malzahn will lament the need for the running game to improve, while the Defense, despite coming up with three takeaways, struggled to get Kentucky off the field, particularly in the first half where they converted on 8-of-10 third downs. Getting back to the takeaways, the biggest one also completely changed the momentum of the game; shortly before halftime, the Wildcats had a potential touchdown overturned at the goal line, with the Tigers’ Junior Defensive Back, Roger McCreary (4 TKL, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD), intercepting their Quarterback, Terry Wilson, on the ensuing play, and returning it 100 yards for what was initially ruled a score, but would eventually be overturned as well thanks to a targeting penalty negating the score. McCreary also forced and recovered a fumble later in the contest.
Meanwhile, as Auburn is one of the few denizens of the SEC to return continuity at Quarterback, Georgia (1-0, 1-0 in SEC) is clearly at the opposite end of the spectrum, with their search for an answer in all likelihood serving as the underlying theme of this campaign. For Kirby Smart, this is new ground to break in Athens, for he has had the luxury of relying upon the venerable Jake Fromm over the past three seasons, a successful period in which he had started forty-three consecutive contests for the Bulldogs, leading them to a 36-7 (.837) record, highlighted by a pair of appearances in the SEC Championship Game and a trip to the CFP National Championship, where they narrowly fell to Alabama in overtime. Needless to say, those are some MAJOR shoes to fill, and it remains to be seen if any of the contenders for the role will be able of carrying the proverbial torch.
Initially, Smart’s plan was to take advantage of the NCAA’s Transfer Portal, bringing in a pair of high-profile transfers to compete for the job. The first was former Wake Forest Quarterback, Jamie Newman, who was coming off an excellent 2019 campaign in which he led the Demon Deacons to a surprising 8-5 finish, completing 60.9% of his attempts for 2,868 yards on 7.9 yards per attempt with twenty-six touchdowns and eleven interceptions. At 6-4, 230 lbs, Newman was also a threat to make plays with his legs, having rushed for 574 yards and six touchdowns last season on 180 carries, but any dreams that the faithful had of him rushing beyond the Bulldogs’ Offensive Line were shattered when the Senior opted out of 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19, looking to prepare for the NFL Draft instead. Moving on to Plan B, Smart had another transfer in mind to lead his Offense: former USC Quarterback, J.T. Daniels. Misfortune struck the former Trojan as he tore his ACL late in last year’s Season Opener, missing the rest of the 2019 campaign as a result. The Redshirt Sophomore started eleven games back in 2018, completing 59.5% of his attempts for 2,672 yards, fourteen touchdowns and ten interceptions, and has since been medically cleared to return to action. In the meantime, Smart opted to start D’Wan Mathis (47.1%, 55 YDS, 3.2 Y/A, 0 TD, 1 INT, 62.5 RATE) in last weekend’s Opener at Arkansas, another Redshirt Sophomore, who patiently bid his time behind Fromm for the past two years. And then there is Stetson Bennett (69.0%, 211 YDS, 7.3 Y/A, 2 TD, 0 INT, 152.8 RATE), who served as Fromm’s primary Backup last season, appearing in four contests in which he had completed 20-of-27 passes for 260 yards on 9.6 yards per attempt, with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. Of course, it was Bennett who had transferred away from the program back in 2018 when he found himself buried on the depth chart behind a number of incoming signal-callers. Oh, and Smart also refused to rule out Freshman, Carson Beck, who also saw plenty of reps in the team’s abridged Offseason workouts. While some down in Athens may consider this gamesmanship on the part of the Head Coach, or much ado about nothing given that most Georgia Quarterbacks are merely playing complementary football to their ever-present rushing attack, there is a sense that there is a crisis brewing under Center which could potentially derail the campaign altogether.
“We’ll be looking at everybody across the board… J.T.’s got to be able to show that he can function efficiently and do it with his knee being able to do it. We’re not putting ourselves in a pigeonhole, saying we can only have one quarterback. We’ve got to develop all of our quarterbacks.”Kirby Smart, Georgia Head Coach
And so the Bulldogs marched out into their Season Opener at Arkansas, with Smart choosing the aforementioned Mathis to lead the attack in Fayetteville, which didn’t lead to the results that he had in mind. Against a team that hadn’t won a conference game since 2017, Mathis struggled immensely, throwing an interception in the red zone to end one drive, while taking a sack to push them out of field goal range on another, leaving the visitors with a meager five points at halftime, trailing 7-5. Utterly disappointed, Smart turned to Bennett, who spent the 2018 campaign in junior college only to return in style, completing 20-of-29 passes for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns, leading Georgia to thirty-two unanswered points. Expecting to be third on the depth chart this season, everything came full circle for the Junior, who in the end led the visiting side to 387 total yards on nineteen first downs, with the rushing attack accounting for 121 yards on forty-two carries, though overcame a pair of turnovers and a disappointing twelve penalties for 108 lost yards. Sophomore Tailback, Zamir White led the way with seventy-rushing yards and a score on thirteen carries, while twelve different players hauled in a pass. The Defense also more than held it’s own throughout the affair, relegating the Razorbacks to a scant 280 total yards, with three takeaways, two from star Safety, Richard Lecounte (3 TKL, 2 INT, 1 PD), and another from Cornerback, Eric Stokes (1 TKL, 1 INT, 1 TD), who returned his for a touchdown.