As Gus Malzahn’s football team prepares for its first road game of the season on Saturday night at Georgia, the offense will need to be prepared for a major challenge between the hedges. There is a good chance that the Bulldogs have the SEC’s most talented defense.
Coach Kirby Smart’s defense features a talented front, plenty of proven linebackers and the type of experience in the secondary that led to three intercepted passes in Georgia’s 37-10 victory at Arkansas. UGA’s defenders are a major reason many of the preseason predictions were for the Bulldogs to win the SEC East.
For this year’s renewal of the SEC’s oldest rivalry, the Oct. 3rd date is a major change. The last time these teams squared off in October was in 1936 when the game was a neutral site matchup played near the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Columbus. The only time the Tigers and Bulldogs played a football game earlier in the calendar year was the initial matchup played on Feb. 20th, 1892.
Something that needs to change for the seventh-ranked Tigers in regard to this series is a negative trend. Malzahn is 2-6 as Auburn’s head coach in games vs. the Bulldogs with the only victories coming in 2013 and 2017. Georgia has won eight of the last 10 matchups to take 60-56-8 advantage in the series.
For a turnaround to happen Auburn’s rebuilt offensive line will need to make a jump in its performance level. The group was better in the second half than the first half as the Tigers outscored Kentucky 21-6 in the final two quarters. The improvement trend needs to continue and accelerate.
Auburn’s defensive front also played better in the second half than the first half, another trend that needs to continue. A real plus coming out of game one is that often-injured senior defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk had by far his most productive Saturday at Auburn and true freshman Zykeivous Walker showed his potential as a guy who can help the defense at either tackle or end.
The linebackers, as expected, played impressive football in the opener and Auburn’s rebuilt secondary showed plenty of potential. Finishing game one with just 91 net yards on 30 carries vs. Kentucky put the pressure on quarterback Bo Nix and the passing game to deliver, which happened with three touchdown tosses and no interceptions.
For game one the special teams play was solid with the group setting up a touchdown when Jordyn Peters was not fooled on a punt fake in the fourth quarter. The Tigers fooled Kentucky on a two-point conversion and stopped the Wildcats on their two-point try. Georgia’s head coach mentioned this week that his Bulldogs need to step up their special teams play.
Looking at the big picture, if the Tigers can find a way to win at Athens for the first time since 2005, which would be considered an upset vs. the fourth-ranked Bulldogs, that would be a giant leap forward for a team that wants to contend for the league championship this year.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter