clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 2 biggest things Georgia has to correct in its rematch against Auburn

The SEC Championship and virtual Playoff quarterfinal isn’t guaranteed to be a repeat of Round 1.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn Montgomery Advertiser-USA TODAY Sports

It all began so well. When Auburn and Georgia played at Jordan-Hare Stadium three weeks ago, the Bulldogs got the ball first and drove 70 yards in eight plays for an easy touchdown. They faced only one third down, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed passes of 28 and 26 yards. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb took it from there.

It was easy to see the first battle between these teams as a race to 24 points or so. Georgia's offense had been inefficient but more than productive enough to hand a decent point total over to a defense that had only once given up more than 19 points.

Auburn's offense had been all-or-nothing, having averaged 40 points per game in wins and 17 per game in losses since the start of 2015. In losses to Clemson and LSU earlier this fall, they scored zero second half points.

Technically, it was a race to 24. Only, one team got there more easily than anticipated.

When Georgia scored so easily out of the gates and Auburn could manage only three field goals in early scoring chances, it was easy to feel like the Dawgs had the game where they wanted it. In theory, Auburn was only going to be able to create so many chances.

But then Jarrett Stidham connected with Darius Slayton for a 42-yard score to make it 16-7 late in the first half. And Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 42-yard field goal. And Mecole Hardman fumbled a punt return early in the second half. Auburn scored to go up 23-7, then 30-7, then 33-10, then 40-10.

After starting 3-for-3 for 56 yards, Fromm completed just seven of his next 21 passes for 103 yards and four sacks. Chubb and Michel finished with 48 yards in 20 carries. Once the avalanche began, the Dawgs had no idea how to stop it. They lost their composure and got blown out.

The good news for UGA is: things change.

Because there are no best-of-seven series, we think of single football games as referendums. Auburn beat Georgia; therefore, Auburn is better than Georgia and will therefore beat Georgia again.

Luckily for the Dawgs, that doesn't have to be the case. We don't get many rematches, but when do, the second result is often quite different than the first.

So what specifically went wrong for the Dawgs on the Plains?

And how likely are they to find a solution?

1. The freshman looked like a freshman (but it wasn’t really his fault)

You never know when it will happen; you just know that it will. Fromm has been incredible for most of the season. He has a 185.5 passer rating on first downs, when opponents are distracted by the run, and he has a 187.0 rating on third downs.

On third-and-four or more — semi-obvious passing situations — he's 37-for-64 for 656 yards, eight touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 175.8 rating. That's impossibly good.

And there was bound to be some regression to the mean. Against Auburn on third-and-four or more, Fromm was 4-for-10 for 100 yards and two big sacks for a loss of 21. And honestly, gaining a net 79 yards on 12 pass attempts against Auburn in those situations isn't bad. But 28 of those yards came on the first third-and-long of the game. His next five produced one completion and two sacks, and by the time he found a rhythm, the Dawgs were down 23.

It’s easy to say a key is him improving in those situations. But really, the key will be avoiding them. Auburn ranks second in FBS in Passing Downs S&P+. Maybe Fromm can do a little better, but the Tigers are only going to give you so many mulligans. To move the ball, the Dawgs are going to have to get much better on first down. That might be the only way to keep pressure off of him — he was pressured on nearly 40 percent of his attempts.

UGA gained 34 yards in four first-down plays on the opening scoring drives, then gained 33 yards on six first-down snaps in a late garbage-time TD drive. In between: 14 plays, 15 yards. Every drive basically began on second-and-nine.

That’s not going to cut it. Be it either with better early-down passing — Fromm was sacked on first downs, too — or, simply, better run blocking, Georgia has to avoid second-and-longs if it wants to avoid its QB running for his life on third-and-long. That might not mean a complete overhaul in tactics, but it will definitely have to involve better execution.

2. Auburn’s short passing game broke the Georgia defense

  • On Auburn's first scoring drive, the Tigers gained 13 yards on a pass to Nate Craig-Myers in the flat and seven on a screen to Ryan Davis.
  • Third scoring drive: Jarrett Stidham completed a screen to Eli Stove for 19 yards and a pass to Chandler Cox in the flat for 17.
  • Fourth scoring drive (and first TD): They completed a screen to Ryan Davis for 11 yards and a screen to Kerryon Johnson for 11 before going deep to Darius Slayton.
  • Up 23-7 in the third quarter, the Tigers put the game away with a 32-yard screen pass to Davis.

Johnson took the headlines with his 32-carry, 167-yard performance against the Dawgs, but Auburn’s masterful creation of space for its receivers was, to me, what won both the Georgia and Alabama games.

Versus UGA, it appeared the Dawgs were very much preoccupied with the run, so Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey constantly used their momentum against them. They are in an incredible play-calling rhythm right now, showing exactly how you can use one advantage (in this case, Johnson’s strong running) to create three more.

Perhaps Johnson’s shoulder injury gives the Dawgs an opportunity. He is listed as probable, so one would expect him to play. But perhaps he will be in less shape to carry 30-plus times (or at least do it well), so maybe Georgia plays a little wider, willing to give Johnson some early yards in the name of stopping the deadly short passes?

Kirby Smart’s coached in a lot of huge games in his lifetime; he’ll come up with something. But Malzahn and Lindsey might have the answer to that, too.

A team that loses Game 1 in the NBA Playoffs doesn’t automatically get swept.

A tennis player who drops the first set 6-2 sometimes wins the second.

Georgia looked lost in the second half of the loss at Auburn, but in Atlanta, the Dawgs will have a chance to atone for their worst performance of the year.

It’s hard to forget that Auburn caused that performance, though.

How S&P+ picks it: Georgia 26 (+2.5), Auburn 25

Here’s your reminder that analytics look at the whole season. They don’t care how overwhelmed Georgia’s offensive line and quarterback became against Auburn’s defensive front. For that matter, they don’t care about Johnson’s shoulder injury.

All S&P+ sees is that, over the course of 12 games each, Georgia graded out as the slightly better team. We’ll see how much context ends up mattering.