Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Eleven Preview
Picture believed to be from first Auburn-Georgia game, played 2/20/1892 at Piedmont Park in Atlanta
It is time. The two big bad wolves that have been looming at the end of Auburn's schedule are now face-to-face with the Tigers, starting with #1 Georgia this week. On top of that, we have the strongest set of games on tap across the country that this season has produced. A lot of uncertainty about the conference races and the playoff race will be cleared up this week. Let's break it all down.
The Deep Dive/Tigers This Week
The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry gets a little older on Saturday. For the 121st time, the Tigers of Auburn and the Bulldogs of Georgia will meet on the gridiron, and this time, the 'Dawgs are toting a #1 playoff poll ranking into Jordan-Hare Stadium. As I certainly don't have to remind you, UGa has straight owned Auburn over the last decade-plus. Since Auburn's exhilarating 31-30 win at Sanford Stadium in 2005, the Tigers' fifth win over the Bulldogs in the previous seven meetings, Georgia has dealt Auburn nine Ls in 11 tries. Sure, Auburn's two wins have been plenty memorable, but Georgia has decidedly had the upper hand in the rivalry for a good while now. Four-plus years into his tenure on the Plains, Gus Malzahn is 1-3 against the Pups, with those losses coming over the last three seasons. Another loss to Georgia would make him 1-8 against Georgia and Alabama combined with the Iron Bowl still to play this season. We've all heard ad nauseum since the LSU loss that these two games will likely determine whether or not Gus continues to be employed at the school beyond this season, and while I'm not 1000000% sure that's the absolute truth, I do believe he can go a hell of a long way to securing his future at the university with at least one win here down the stretch.
Through no real fault of its own, the Tigers have been thrust into one of the sports media's reliably irritating narratives, what with all this discussion about whether or not twice-beaten Auburn controls its own destiny when it comes to reaching the College Football Playoff, and whether or not the Tigers' body of work is more impressive than that of undefeated Wisconsin or Miami (especially Wisconsin). I'm sure Malzahn and the coaching staff are less than amused by this development, but Auburn just has to work extra hard to shut out any of that nonsense this week. This team still has a shot at great things by virtue of the two huge bellcow home games it has remaining on the schedule, but AU could just as easily slide back into another forgettable bowl game if it loses those two games. Let the people whose job it is to argue about unlikely scenarios for a living do the talking. (It's not my job per se, but just for the sake of arguing about an unlikely scenario, I really truly can't imagine that an undefeated Power Five conference champion will be left out of the playoff under any circumstance aside from all five leagues producing an undefeated champion, which is hella unlikely any year and already off the table this year. Hypothetically, I do believe Auburn has a very good shot at making the playoff if they win out, but I think that has more to do with other teams around the country losing than it does with the Tigers leapfrogging an undefeated team.)
I alluded to this in Monday's column, but the five-star matchup in this game will be Auburn's front seven versus Georgia QB Jake Fromm. There's a lot more to it than that, as the Tiger defense will have to find a way to keep the Bulldogs from running wild on them first, but the 'Dawgs have stayed undefeated starting a freshman QB by following a pretty classic formula this season. The powerhouse RB duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel has unsurprisingly paced the UGa offense this season, and Fromm has been able to be more of a game manager than anything. He's plenty talented, and as always, the Bulldogs are stacked at the skill positions, but he hasn't really been pushed by an opposing team (or crowd) since his first start at Notre Dame. Obviously, that win has been critically important to Georgia since they got it, but even there, the Fighting Irish crowd barely showed up and didn't exactly turn Notre Dame Stadium into the Roman Colosseum. The combination of Auburn's crowd and defensive skill up front will be the two best things the Tigers have going for them in this game.
On the other side of the ball, the side that receives by far the most scrutiny on the Plains, Jarrett Stidham and the Auburn offense have to handle a significant challenge in Kirby Smart's defense. Facing multiple head coaches and coordinators, Gus Malzahn's offense has struggled mightily with Georgia's defense over the last three years. The 2014 game was a wipeout on both sides of the ball, but Auburn's defense did more than enough to get wins in both 2015 and 2016, only to see the Auburn offense stumble and fart all over the field. It's no secret that Auburn has to play better offensively to get a win this time around, but how should they attack Georgia? Smart and UGa defensive coordinator Mel Tucker are both Nick Saban guys, and Georgia's defense is extremely reminiscent of Alabama's. Not shockingly, the years that Malzahn's offenses have been able to attack both Bammer and Georgia have been the years where Auburn could push the ball up the field in the passing game with some regularity. The Tigers can surely do that this year, although they've shown a propensity to fall in love with the deep ball to the exclusion of everything else. (See the Clemson and LSU defeats.) Auburn showed admirable balance last week at Texas A&M, and they'll need to strive for something like that this week. It's not likely that they'll be able to roll up the kind of yards they were able to amass in College Station, but being able to hit Georgia deep, find gaps in the defense in the intermediate range, and run the ball with some effectiveness will all be essential Saturday. Deep throws are exciting and all, but Stidham, Malzahn, and Chip Lindsey can't get so enamored with them that we end up with another afternoon of the Tiger QB running for his life. Georgia has plenty of talent up front to make that a reality if the Tigers can't keep Tucker and Smart's defense off-balance.
Key players for Auburn will include many of the usual suspects. I'd love to see Stidham have his best game under center at Auburn, as an especially crisp effort from him on Saturday could be the key ingredient for an upset. And certainly Kerryon Johnson will be a big factor. I'd especially love to see him utilized in the passing game. He picked up his first receiving touchdown of the year at A&M last week, and later made a fantastic catch-and-run on another Tiger touchdown drive. He's been more than wonderful as the team's feature back this year, but his versatility may be his greatest attribute this week. Receiver play is also a key. We've seen clear improvement from the Auburn wideouts this season compared to years past, but they've had their struggles, too. (The LSU game especially, where the execution just wasn't there in multiple areas.) Georgia's got some guys in the back end that can play a little bit, so the Tiger receiving corps needs to be able to win some one-on-one matchups to give Stidham more of a chance to be effective. The little things, like proper timing, maintaining blocks downfield, and route-running discipline will all be imperative. It was in those areas especially that the wideouts struggled in Baton Rouge, and the poor timing and lackadaisical route-running contributed to some drops and missed opportunities. (And of course, it goes without saying that the performance of the offensive line is key. They have to get consistent push on Auburn's base running plays. Staying out of 2nd or 3rd and 10+ will help everything else out tremendously.)
Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton, and Will Hastings have been the most prominent receivers Auburn's had this year. It'd be wonderful to see Nate Craig-Myers break out this week, but if any one of them is able to be a consistent target for Stidham, that'd be great. Eli Stove has been thrown a few balls this year, too, but he most often gets his touches on either jet sweeps or little forward pitches that count as passes but are basically just jet sweeps. His gamebreaking speed is always welcome, and I'd love to see both him and Ryan Davis used as creatively as possible this week. I extolled Davis' virtues on Monday, and I hope to extol them again this coming Monday. If there's any sneaky trick plays that utilize his past as a QB left in the playbook, this week would be a great time to bust 'em out.
Defensively, applying consistent pressure on Fromm is essential, but the run defense has to be on point to handle Chubb and Michel. If the 'Dawgs can stroll in and stick the ball in Auburn's face on the ground, the Tigers have no chance. Completely shutting both players down may be too much to ask, but the Tigers definitely have to limit the big plays on the ground. Limiting big plays in general is key. I went over some of the ugly numbers regarding the increasing amount of chunk plays Auburn's allowed recently on Monday, and keeping those in check is critical this week. Georgia's good enough as it is. If they're able to steal points because Auburn blows a coverage or briefly forgets how to tackle, I don't know if the home team will be able to overcome that. That goes double for special teams, where UGa has hurt Auburn in the recent past. (Isaiah McKenzie's 53-yard punt return for a touchdown in 2015 was backbreaking.) Whatever Georgia gets, Georgia has to earn. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the team that comes up with the most big plays probably wins.
This is a tough game, and Auburn's on a terrible run against Georgia. And while I'm no Nostradamus (I halfheartedly picked Auburn to win at Clemson, but didn't really expect it. I had a weird feeling about LSU, but was fully expecting Auburn to win), I've had a feeling for a few weeks that Auburn's going to get it done against the 'Dawgs this weekend. Malzahn needs this, the program needs this, and I think this is going to be an "everything and the kitchen sink" sort of game for the Tigers. If they go out and lose because they ran the same dumb, predictable plays on Saturday, that'd be crushing.
Auburn 27, Georgia 23
Rest of the Menu
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images (From before the 1988 Miami/Notre Dame game, "Catholics vs Convicts")
Quickly on to the rest of the slate. #12 Washington goes to Stanford on Friday night (9:30 CT on FS1). The Huskies don't have too many chances to make statements, so they need to take advantage of this one. Their best bet is to hope that everyone else falls out of the mix.
Oklahoma State and Iowa State play in Ames in a game where they each have to win to keep their flickering conference title chances alive (11 CT on ABC/ESPN2, probably the Deuce around these parts). At the same time, Michigan State travels to Ohio State with the once-much-more-meaningful Big Ten East title likely in the balance (11 CT on FOX, and I think we can all laugh heartily if Sparty wins the division). Two lousy SEC matchups also kick off at 11 CT, with Arkansas traveling to LSU (ESPN) and Florida visiting South Carolina (CBS). Things are bad in Arkansas, but they're positively dire in Florida right now. Also, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech play in a now-meaningless ACC game on the ACC's regional network at 11:20 CT, which I must mention in order to call it the Tecmo Bowl. There, that joke's made.
Auburn and Georgia kickoff in the afternoon window, which is a tad light for such a big day. Florida State and Clemson (2:30 CT on ESPN) has been one of the nation's premier contests in recent years, but decidedly isn't this season. The biggest other game in the afternoon is #20 Iowa at #9 Wisconsin (2:30 CT on ABC). Like Washington, Wisconsin isn't going to have many chances to impress the selection committee, so they better make the most of their visit from the freshly-ranked Hawkeyes.
Kentucky and Vandy kick-off at 3 CT on the SEC Network. This is a huge game for the Commodores' bowl hopes. Into the evening, Alabama visits Mississippi State, who is - and I want to emphasize this - the best team Bama will have played so far this season. They kick off in Starkvegas at 6 CT on ESPN. I don't think the Bullies have the horses for this contest, but they should give Bama a fight. Half an hour later, sad sack Tennessee visits suddenly feisty Missouri (6:30 CT on SEC Network), another game that's critical to the lower half of the SEC bowl picture.
The two other huge games come at 7 CT. In a likely preview of the Big 12 Championship Game, #5 Oklahoma hosts #6 Texas Christian (7 CT on FOX). I think the buzz may be slightly down for this game just because it may be the first of two games between the teams in the next month. Opposite them is the ABC Game of the Universe, Notre Dame at Miami. I fully believe that both teams control their own destiny as it pertains to the playoff, but a loss dooms either. Miami's succeeded despite committing a copious amount of turnovers this season, but I just can't quite seem to back the U this week. I think the Irish control the lines just like they have in their other wins this year.
With the big Pac-12 game going on Friday, there's nothing much to speak of in the late window, but by then, we should all be well and truly gorged on a big Veteran's Day of football.
Massacre Island Forecast
Massacre-palooza happens next week (the ceremonial pre-Thanksgiving beating of the weaklings around the SEC), but we still get a few presumptive whoopings this week. Ole Miss hosts Louisiana-Lafayette, who's still trying to snooker everyone into calling them just Louisiana (11 CT on SEC Network) and Texas A&M hosts New Mexico (6 CT on ESPNU). Neither the Ragin' Cajuns nor the Lobos are especially bad, so I wouldn't entirely rule out an upset scare in either game. (Also, they both bring solid nicknames to the table.) The real pulverizings will be upon us next week.
Nationally, just about everybody's only playing conference games this week, though a few of them have the potential to get nasty. Coming off consecutive last-minute, heartbreaking road losses to major rivals, I fully expect Penn State to go all in on Rutgers at home Saturday afternoon. The Scarlet Knights were appallingly bad last year (gotta remind everybody of this game one more time), but they've actually picked up a few wins this year. But narrow wins over Purdue and Maryland only amount to so much, and I'd advise younger or more squeamish Big Ten Network viewers to avert their eyes in two days.
Mike Leach Tweet Bingo
I'm getting all the mileage out of this picture that I can
I really didn't expect for the Mike Leach section of this column to be quite such a regular feature, but darn if the Ol' Pirate hasn't been the gift that keeps on giving this year. This time around, he's tweeting about his love for Auburn's famous battle cry. I like his reasoning that "it feels like how college football should feel". There may never be a better, more accurately vague statement to describe the rush of "War Eagle" or any of about 1000 other things that attract so many of us to the college game. You can't explain it logically, it just feels right.
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football, but for Real)
Jim Mone/Associated Press
Oh man, things are going down in the halls of NFL power right now. With the season largely lackluster so far, the most entertaining action has been in the various league boardrooms, with the latest development seeing a rapidly increasing power struggle between commissioner Roger Goodell and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. For both background and entertainment, I highly suggest reading these two pieces from ESPN's Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta, Jr. One is about how Jones almost single-handedly set up the Rams as the team to benefit the most from the move to Los Angeles, as opposed to the originally favored Chargers, and the other is about Jones and Goodell butting heads at the recent owners' meetings in regards to the ongoing national anthem protest debate. They're both endlessly fascinating and chart a clear path to where we stand today. Throw in the also endless drama surrounding Ezekiel Elliott's on-again, off-again, rinse, repeat domestic violence suspension (as of tonight, it's back on again) and you have a pretty epic brouhaha between the two, which has peaked with reports that Jones is ready to sue the league and several other owners in order to set somewhat punitive terms in Goodell's forthcoming contract extension.
You could make a fine case that Goodell's contract should be incentive-based, since pretty much any player can have whatever contract he's signed be voided whenever an owner sees fit, but the rub here is that Jones is mostly doing this to get back at ol' Rog for the Elliott suspension and for his resistance to Jones' proposed national anthem rule. What's especially humorous about all this is that Jones pushed for Goodell to have his broad, discretionary discipline powers during the also-endless Tom Brady Deflategate drama. Now he's mad that the commish's mercurial sense of justice has come back to bite his own team in the expletive deleted. Couple this with any sense of vindictiveness that the very influential owner of the Patriots, Bob Kraft, might feel towards both men, and we may have ourselves a very high-stakes Mexican standoff. Honestly, beyond revenge, Kraft and several of the other powerful, established owners (the Hunts, the Rooneys, the Maras) may want to get out in front of Jones here just to check his seemingly ever-increasing power. But Jones definitely seems to have some people on his side, as odious Redskins owner Dan Snyder was in his corner on the anthem debate, and Texans owner Bob McNair may be in play as well (even though he's one of the guys Jones might sue to start this process). It's crazy, crazy, rich-man-pissing-contest stuff, and it may have more effect on the future of the NFL than anything has in years. It's definitely worth paying attention to.
The whole season's been building to this really. We finally get a truly jam-packed weekend schedule, and Auburn plays one of the most important games the program's faced in a hot minute. We'll have plenty to break down after the dust has settled, so check back on Monday for the recap. Just to reiterate my picks for the weekend, Auburn narrowly over Georgia, Notre Dame wins at Miami, Oklahoma beats TCU, Bama gets a battle but outlasts State, and Ohio State bounces back to take down Sparty. Whatever happens, we can at least rely on Florida to continue to be an absolute grease fire. Enjoy your Veteran's Day weekend, everybody.