ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 5: Aaron Murray #11 of the Georgia Bulldogs passes against the New Mexico State Aggies at Sanford Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Athens, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Auburn has milked the most out of the "field position and special teams" game; can they ride that to their seventh win, or will Georgia's surprisingly efficient passing game take Mark Richt one step closer to an SEC East title?
For all intents and purposes, this year's Auburn team more closely resembles this year's Kansas State squad than 2010 Auburn. A year after winning the national title behind one of the more transcendent, explosive players in recent college football history, the Tigers are left to grind out wins behind a workhorse runner (and unlike K-State, theirs is actually a running back), a slow pace, field position and special teams. To date, however, they have done a decent amount of winning. They are 6-3 despite ranking just 57th in F/+. Thanks to the fact that all three losses were by rather significant margins, they have actually managed to extend their win streak in games decided by a possession or less to a ridiculous 11 games.
That said ... they have lost three games by 14, 24 and 35 points, and they have posted incredibly mediocre overall numbers. They are closer to 3-6 than 7-2, and now, with a defense that is mediocre at best, they have to figure out how to slow down one of the most underrated, efficient passing attacks in the country between the hedges tomorrow afternoon.
I mentioned last week that LSU tends to shut down every weapon beyond opponents' No. 1 receiver. If LSU and Georgia meet in the SEC title game, then, there will be some interesting matchups at work, Georgia gets almost nothing from their No. 1 but wonderful production from just about everybody else. Auburn has a solid playmaker in junior corner T'Sharvan Bell (two interceptions, seven passes broken up), but do they have the depth to account for all weapons?
If you have been reading the weekly Heisman Watch column, you've noticed that Georgia's passing rankings are high enough to get Aaron Murray on the candidates list. This level of quality has not been obvious, in part because Georgia began the year playing two of the best pass defenses in the country. Murray completed 35 of 58 passes against Boise State (first in Def. Passing S&P+) and South Carolina (seventh) for 484 yards, six touchdowns and just two interceptions. (Granted, he was sacked about 16 times in the process as well.) Averaging 8.3 yards per pass against two elite pass defenses will give your opponent-adjusted numbers a hefty bump.
Strangely enough, Murray hasn't really done any better against lesser pass defenses -- against the Dawgs' other six FBS opponents, he has averaged 8.1 yards per pass with 13 touchdowns to six interceptions -- but Georgia's passing game has been consistently solid. This is particularly impressive considering Murray really has no go-to receiver and little experience around him, and only one of his top five targets qualifies as anything resembling explosive.
It is quite odd for Georgia to rank near the top of the Passing S&P+ list despite one of the least effective No. 1 targets in the country. Tavarres King has been targeted by 22 percent of Georgia's passes this year, and has managed to combine the catch rate of an all-or-nothing threat (51 percent) with the per-catch average of a possession receiver (11.0). His per-target average of 5.6 yards is the third-worst of all No. 1 targets on a BCS conference team (only Florida's Jordan Reed and Nebraska's Brandon Kinnie are worse).
When you combine this with the fact that three of the next five targets on the list are freshmen, you quickly get an understanding for just how important tight end Orson Charles (46 targets, 31 catches, 390 yards) has been for Murray. He has caught more passes than King (31 to 29) despite 11 fewer targets; he has gained 70 more yards in the process as well. He is one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the country, much more consistent than long-time hit-or-miss tight end Aron White (11 targets, six catches, 77 yards). He has been a nearly automatic first down early in a set of downs; on standard downs, he has caught 21 of 27 passes for 272 yards (10.8 per target). Combine that with explosive freshman Malcolm Mitchell (23 targets on standard downs, 18 catches, 367 yards), and one can see how the play-action game might be Georgia's friend. Auburn's defense has been painfully inefficient on standard downs, and they could suffer significantly in this regard.
If the Tigers can leverage the Dawgs into passing downs, however, the advantage quickly shifts. While Georgia is 13th in Standard Downs S&P+ (second passing), they are just 48th in Passing Downs S&P+ (27th passing). The draw game doesn't fool anybody, and the passing game is a bit too conservative. None of the top three passing downs targets -- King, Charles or freshman Michael Bennett -- average even six yards per target on passing downs, and perhaps the team's best deep threat (Marlon Brown) is very hit-or-miss.
Georgia's early-downs offense holds a significant advantage over Auburn. If they take full advantage of this matchup, and if they are sharp on standard downs, then it is difficult to imagine the Dawgs losing. However, the advantages do dry up a bit after that. Auburn's offense should be able to move the ball themselves on passing downs, and the Tigers should be able to define the narrative of the game with special teams and field position. They rank 12th in Special Teams Efficiency and seventh in Field Position Advantage; Georgia, meanwhile, ranks 92nd and 86th, respectively. The Dawgs are likely to face longer fields and give up a few points through special teams, but that won't be a hindrance as long as they maximize their own advantages. Can they? As Mark Richt's Dawgs close in on both 10 wins and a division title, can they maintain focus and edge against a team built to win close games?