In Auburn’s two losses this season to Mississippi State and Texas A&M, turnovers led to bad starts for the Tigers. Coach Gus Malzahn said his team needs to avoid a repeat of that scenario as it plays the Georgia Bulldogs, an opponent that leads the SEC in turnover margin at plus 13, which ranks fourth nationally.
“That is very important,” he said about ball security. “You look at the two games we lost and we fumbled the football on the first play in both games.”
Malzahn noted those starts put the Tigers in a hole. “It was uphill the rest of the time,” he said. “Turnovers are definitely going to be a factor in this game. We have to do a good job of protecting the football and really getting off to a better start.”
Penalties have also been an issue for the Tigers. “That starts with me,” the head coach said. “We have to be more disciplined. We have got to be more accountable and we are working hard to do that--I will tell you that.”
The Tigers worked out in shoulder pads, helmets and shorts on Wednesday evening. Malzahn said the Tigers had a “solid” practice just like they did on Tuesday, but added, “We solid practices last week, too. The big thing for us is to carry it over to Saturday. Our guys are committed to that. They have had good energy, good focus.”
Against Texas A&M the Tigers got off to a rotten start both defensively and offensively. “We gave up a cheap touchdown early and we fumbled the football the very first time we had it and they went down and scored,” Malzahn pointed out.
“We got down 14-0 and it was uphill. From a coach’s standpoint with me, I have got to do a better job of preparing our team to get off to a better start because the two losses are very similar.”
Malzahn noted that the Tigers have made changes in practice that he hopes will address the slow starts. “I think as a coach when you have got an issue it is my job to figure out a way to...you can’t keep doing the exact same thing. No doubt we tried to do things a little bit different to try to get us off to a better start.”
Senior wide receiver Quan Bray is not ready to throw in the towel on the idea that his Tigers are out of the race for the SEC title or a spot in the four-team national playoff. “We are a two-loss team, we are in the Top 10, we still feel like we hold our destiny,” he said. “We are just going to go out and play and go 3-0, and at the end of the season we will see what’s there.”
Bray, who is having his best season, goes into Saturday’s game with 25 catches, the second highest total on the team. He is third in receiving yards with 287 and has three touchdown receptions. The senior is ranked No. 2 nationally in punt return average at 20.5 yards and has taken two for touchdowns.
Bray, who is from Troup County High School in LaGrange, Ga., notes that this week’s game is a rivalry contest for the Tigers, especially those from the state of Georgia. “We are thinking about that, but at the same time we are trying to keep our eyes on the goal,” he said.
The goal is to bounce back from a disappointing loss to Texas A&M. With the Tigers featuring numerous experienced players, that should assist them put last week’s disappointment out of their minds, Bray said. “It helps a lot because we have been through a lot of ups and downs, and we understand we slipped up, made uncharacteristic mistakes in that game and we are just regrouping and getting back to work.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt, who has an 8-5 record in games vs. the Tigers, said the SEC’s oldest rivalry is a big game. “It has always meant a lot to me,” he said.
“It seems to be at a time of the year where usually it's going to decide somebody’s fate when it comes to playing for the SEC Championship,” Richt said. “Sometimes it directly affects it, sometimes it keeps you in the race maybe. That has been a big part of it just the timing of when it is, but just knowing that this will be the 118th time that we'd played and they got a one game lead over that span, that's pretty amazing how close this series has been.
“Many of these guys played high school ball together, got recruited together,” Richt added. “These players are very familiar with each other, maybe as much as any time we play, so there is that dynamic going on as well. There are a lot of things that come into play in this game, but it has always been big, and obviously this one is huge.”
In other news and notes:
*Malzahn said he has been pleased with the senior season Cameron Artis-Payne is having as the SEC’s top rusher. “We knew he was a tough guy, we knew he was a hard worker. He did some very good things last year when he got in. He had the spring.
“He is very good at all of the little things,” the coach added. “He is a very good pass protector. He is a very good blocker when he is asked to block. He does a lot of things that don’t come out on the stat sheet that really help us.”
*Malzahn said that Duke Williams, who injured his knee in the Texas A&M game, did not practice on Thursday. The coach said he isn’t sure whether or not Williams will be able to make the trip to Athens.
Duke Williams is Auburn's leading receiver.
*Kickoff for Saturday’s game is set for shortly after 6:15 p.m. CST with TV coverage on ESPN. Brad Nessler will do the play-by-play with Todd Blackledge the analyst and Holly Rowe the sideline reporter.
*The Auburn Radio Network coverage featuring Rod Bramblett, Stan White and Quentin Riggins is available on Sirius Channel 138 and XM Channel 192. The game will also be broadcast on the Westwood One radio network with Jason Bennetti calling the action and Derek Rackley the analyst.
*The Tigers, who are ranked ninth nationally, lead the series 55-54-8 vs. No 18 Georgia. Auburn has an 18-12 record in games played at Sanford Stadium where the Tigers have come home a winner in 10 of their last 15 trips to Georgia’s home field, which seats 92,476 fans.
Auburn’s coach said he is seeing signs in practice that his players are eager to play the rivalry game. “I think wee have got close to 40 guys from the state of Georgia,” Malzahn said of his roster. “Any time you play in your home state, I know it’s special for those guys.”
*Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards per game with 286.4 per contest. Against SEC opponents the Tigers are doing even better on the ground, averaging 306.3 rushing yards in six games.
Cameron Artis-Payne has rushed for 1,190 yards in nine games as his 7-2 team prepares to play the 7-2 Georgia Bulldogs.
*Only Georgia Tech, at 59.3 percent, has a better third down conversion rate than the Auburn offense, which is picking up first downs on 55 percent of its third down plays.
*Despite its recent struggles defensively, Auburn is ranked second in the nation in red zone defense. Opponents have scored on 24 of 36 trips inside Auburn’s 20-yard line with 18 touchdowns and six field goals.
*When the Auburn offense gets into the red zone it has converted 37 of 41 opportunities into points with 30 touchdowns and seven field goals. The Tigers’ 90.2 conversion rate is ranked 16th nationally.
*Georgia leads the SEC in scoring and is ranked seventh nationally with an average of 43 points per game. The Bulldogs are on pace to easily surpass the school record of 37.8 points per contest in 2012.
*With 43 touchdowns in 29 games, Todd Gurley is ranked fourth nationally in that category among active FBS level players. He needs just one more TD to tie Darren McFadden and move into the SEC’s Top 10 for career touchdowns and two more to tie former Auburn star Bo Jackson. Carnell Williams is Auburn’s touchdown leader with 46, which tied him for sixth place behind Tim Tebow’s 57.
*Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie has two punt returns for touchdowns this year. Malzahn said that he believes Auburn’s punt coverage group has made strides since struggling with that during a road win in game three at Kansas State. “I think we have gotten better at covering and that has been the biggest factor. Our punting has been more consistent--not just with the height and distance matching up, but with the location.”
*While Auburn’s punt returning has been strong, the same cannot be said of the kickoff returns. “There is no doubt,” Malzahn said. “We have definitely talked through that and tried to spend more time in practice, not just this week, but last week. We have just got to do a better job. It takes 10 guys up front being on the same page, with the same timing and everything that goes with that. We have really taken a lot of time to evaluate that, and hopefully we can improve in that area.”
*Another kicking game issue the Tigers are working on is field goal protection after having one blocked by Texas A&M that was returned for a touchdown.
“Any time you have a blocked field goal, there is something that needs fixing,” Malzahn said. “There was a breakdown. They did a great job with their scheme. The guy has long arms, all that stuff, but we have faced guys with long arms before. We have got to do a better job.
:That was a huge play in the game, especially the timing of it, right there before the half,” he added. “It was seven points the other way, a 10-point swing, really, so that was really a big play.”