Kicking Game Could Spell The Difference

Special teams could spell the difference when Auburn and Georgia meet on Saturday.

Auburn, Ala.—While both offenses and defenses will have a say in who wins the Top 25 showdown between the Auburn Tigers (6-3, 4-2) and the Georgia Bulldogs (7-2, 5-1) on Saturday at Sanford Stadium, one of the most overlooked parts of the game will be the special teams.

With potentially two of the top kicking games in the league entering the contest it may come down to which team can make a play or avoid the big mistake.

Sophomores Cody Parkey and Steven Clark have been a huge part of Auburn's success in 2011 as Parkey's kicking has been a strong point all season. Making 11-14 field goals and leading the league with 27 touchbacks, Parkey is one of the biggest reasons why the Tigers lead the league in kickoff coverage.

In the punting game Clark has been equally as impressive. Averaging 40.1 yards per kick this season, Clark and the coverage team has allowed just 41 return yards on 55 punts this season. He leads the league with 25 of his 55 punts downed inside the 20-yard line this year.

Another strength for the Tigers has been in the kickoff return game as freshman Tre Mason started out on fire this season, but recently Auburn's return game has been stifled. In his first two games Mason had 10 returns for 318 yards and a touchdown. Banged up with a hamstring problem and with teams kicking away from him, he has 11 returns the last seven games and is averaging just 23.3 yards on those attempts. That includes getting swamped time and time again in the loss to LSU with a fumble thrown in for good measure.

Auburn's special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said right now the overall unit is looking to have another breakout game this weekend against the Bulldogs.

"I think that a couple weeks ago--or I guess it's been three weeks now--we didn't perform the way we'd like to perform in the LSU game," Boulware said. "I think the team as a whole didn't perform well. It wasn't just one thing I could put my finger on. It was everybody. And I think I told you what has made us better in the past, early in the year, was the team itself. And when the team itself is not doing good, we're not good. We don't have, right now, a good enough returner in the back end to make something happen when things are not blocked well."

On the other side Georgia's special teams have been anything but this season as the Bulldogs are last in the league in net punting (34.1 yards), 11th in kickoff coverage, and 11th in field goals (13-23). In the return game, however, Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith make things interesting as both have the ability to take it to the house. Boulware said Auburn will have its hands full from a Georgia special teams' group that has the ability to make something happen and change the game in the blink of an eye.

"He's a tremendous weapon," Boulware said of Boykin. "I thought he was gone. I mean, I feel like I've been going against him every year. This is my third year here and he's still back there. A lot of their guys are gone, but that guy's been back there. They've got two very skilled return men.

"In our league, they've got the best combination of specialists in our league. There's nobody that has what they have. From returner, kick returner, punt returner, punter, kicker, we strive to have guys that are that recognized across the country, as well as returners that have performed year-in, year-out. And they've got those guys. It's going to be a tremendous challenge as always for us this week."

Kickoff for Saturday's game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Central can be seen nationally on CBS.

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