AUBURN, Ala. — The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is, as its name would suggest, filled with history. The Tigers and the Bulldogs have traded memorable wins featuring a list of high-profile players and coaches longer than any other set of schools in this part of the country.
Chip Towers is someone with a great grasp of this matchup’s size and scope over the years. He first started covering the Georgia beat in 1985, and he’s currently a member of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s DawgNation team — which is a sister site of SEC Country — with Seth Emerson and Jeff Sentell.
Towers is undoubtedly the perfect person to take on An Opposing View this week for the Auburn side of SEC Country. I asked him the customary five questions on what has been a surprisingly down Georgia team in Kirby Smart’s first season, and he also delivered his final prediction for Saturday in Athens’ Sanford Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS).
Justin Ferguson: How much do you attribute Georgia’s performances so far this season to growing pains with a first-year head coach?
Chip Towers: “I think that’s definitely part of it. I’ll even go as far as saying this same team is better than 5-4 if Mark Richt was still coaching. Now that’s not to say that Richt is a better coach. It’s just that Smart came in preaching and instilling a massive ‘culture change’ and that comes with a cost.
“I’ve likened to an earthquake or other seismic events. There are tremors and aftershocks. That’s kind of what’s going on here. And it seems to be smoothing out some here late in the season. The longer players get used to Smart’s process and style and more Smart gets his players to Georgia, the better it will be. But they need a win of validation, and they haven’t had one since the season opener against North Carolina.”
JF: What has been Georgia’s single-biggest problem so far in what has been a 5-4 season?
CT: “Without question, offensive line has been Georgia’s biggest problem and disappointment. The Bulldogs knew they were losing two experienced veterans in LT John Theus and RT Kolton Houston after last season. The proposed solution was to bring in graduate transfer Tyler Catalina from Rhode Island to compete at left tackle and to move senior Greg Pyke from right guard out to tackle. They ended up sticking with that coming out of preseason camp, meaning they believe that’s their best lineup.
“But that group has wilted badly when matching up with formidable defenses, which they will be doing Saturday against Auburn. Poor O-line play has had a trickle-down effect on the whole offense and hasn’t helped the Bulldogs as they’ve tried to break in a freshman quarterback.”
JF: Quick passing and downfield throws on third down have been big issues for Auburn’s defense in the last couple of weeks. How well does Georgia do in those areas, in your opinion?
CT: “The Bulldogs’ offense has actually operated at its best when it plays that way. Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason is actually 3-for-3 on successful, last-minute drives for the go-ahead score when Georgia went to its hurry-up, two-minute offense (Tennessee undid Eason’s good work with a Hail Mary as time expired).
“A lot of observers — this one included — believe they should spread more, go fast and play pass-first to open the run game. Kirby Smart disagrees, however, and seeks run-first balance out of a pro-style look. So sometimes it feels as if he’s trying to put a square peg in a round hole. But the Bulldogs have confidence knowing that they can rely on Eason and the wideouts to pull them through when needed.”
JF: What is the biggest strength of this Georgia defense? How do you see the Bulldogs matching up on that side of the ball with what has been a red-hot Auburn offense?
CT: “Oddly enough, Georgia’s defensive line has been one of the defense’s strengths. That’s saying something since it was the biggest question mark coming in. The Bulldogs have only one upperclassman — redshirt junior NG John Atkins — among their 10 or so man rotation on the defensive line. Trent Thompson, a sophomore, is their best player. Several freshmen play regularly.
“They’ve got some injury issues up there this week. Thompson (hip) should be able to go, but DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle (high ankle) probably will not. Linebackers are OK but somewhat undersized and secondary — which led nation in pass defense a year ago — has been a bit of a disappointment. Overall, though, they’re good against the run (118.2 yards per game, 3rd in the SEC).”
JF: How important was it for Georgia to get that win against Kentucky ahead of this matchup? Can you see more confidence in these Bulldogs this week?
CT: “Yeah, I know a lot of people probably rolled their eyes and scoffed at the thought of the Dogs getting any ‘juice’ from beating Kentucky. But you probably had to be there to appreciate the atmosphere and the situation. First off, it’s a pretty good Wildcats’ team that can flat out tote the rock. Secondly, it was a sell-out night-time crowd, Kentucky entered in second place in the East and, with Florida’s loss to Arkansas in the middle of the game, the Wildcats had a chance to be tied for first with a victory. And they led late.
“So it showed something for Georgia to withstand all that and then orchestrate a length-of-field drive at the end of the game to win it. It was definitely a confidence builder and actually good preparation for Auburn with the style of offense the Wildcats are running.”
TOWERS’ PREDICTION: “I still can’t believe Auburn is coming to Sanford Stadium as a 10-point favorite. But the boys in Vegas usually know what they’re talking about. The matchups definitely favor the Tigers and they have a lot to play for. So I expect the visitors to win. But I’d be shocked if it’s not close contest. I say Auburn by two long Daniel Carlson field goals.”