Not only do I think Cam Newton will play, I think Auburn should play him, even if the NCAA ends up recommending otherwise. It’s one thing if we’re talking about the various investigations that were in the news at the beginning of the year. Teams could sit the players under investigation and proceed with the season knowing that the damage was limited to the absence of that player. But at this point of the year Auburn is all in. If Newton is ineligible on Saturday, he was ineligible in September. If the rest of the season has to be vacated anyway, I don’t see the point of stopping now. It would take an actual ruling on Newton’s eligibility status for me to sit him and not a just-in-case recommendation.
With the two offenses getting much of the attention and buildup going into the game, it’s reasonable that the game could be turned by a defensive or special teams play that creates a short field or points. The game features the SEC’s top kickoff return unit (Auburn) against the league’s top kickoff coverage unit (Georgia). Both teams are net positive in turnover margin for the year. Each team has turned it over 12 times on the year, and Georgia has three more takeaways. Cam Newton hasn’t thrown an interception since the Kentucky game over a month ago after throwing five picks over the team’s first six games.
The role of Georgia’s running game will be interesting to watch. The Senator’s point here about the dangers, especially in this game, about being stubborn with the run for its own sake is well taken. But if only to give the defense a chance to catch its breath, Georgia is going to have to find ways, either on the ground or through a consistent passing attack, to keep Auburn’s offense on the sideline.
It’s clear why the ground attack shouldn’t be the primary focus of Georgia’s game plan. Auburn, despite overall defensive rankings towards the middle or bottom of the conference, is 3rd in rushing defense. That makes sense with good linemen like Fairley and Carter, but it also could have to do with the pressure Auburn’s offense puts on their opponent to keep up. In other words, are teams having less success running against Auburn because they have a good rushing defense, or is it because they’re having to pass a lot? It’s probably some of both. LSU ran the ball 37 times against Auburn but only racked up 115 yards. The Tigers are giving up just 3.5 YPC which is still no worse than 4th in the league.
Georgia had a pretty good day on the ground against Auburn last year. Ealey was just short of 100 yards, King added 66 on just 10 carries, and the team ended up with 169 yards and three scores from the running game. Auburn has only given up in excess of 150 yards rushing twice this season: 218 yards to Ole Miss and 187 yards against Clemson. Ole Miss got 83 of their yards on a single run. Clemson did a good job of using the running game and the short passing game to gain an almost 10 minute advantage in time of possession, but few teams have had nearly that kind of success on the ground. Clemson was, though, one of the few teams to hold Auburn under 30 points.
Georgia fans have been beaten over the head with the need to start well. No one wants to get into another situation like a year ago where Auburn jumped out to a 14-0 lead while Georgia struggled to even get positive yardage. But, surprisingly, Auburn’s also had their moments this year where the offense hasn’t been that productive. We saw it last year – after jumping out 14-0, Auburn’s offense didn’t score another touchdown in the game. Whether it was the second half at MSU, the first half against Clemson, or the second half against Kentucky, Auburn’s close calls this year have come where their offense has all but disappeared for a while. They’ve been better at consistency since that Kentucky game, but the Georgia coaches have to have looked at those games to see if there was some common approach that succeeded in keeping Auburn off the scoreboard for extended periods.
Newton’s counterpart, Aaron Murray, has a lot on his shoulders in this game. Georgia really hasn’t seen a crowd like this since South Carolina, and even that was a noon crowd. He was admittedly a little anxious for Florida, and the cold or wind or whatever it was had him missing badly at the outset last week. Conditions should be a little more favorable at Auburn, but it’s still a game in which he needs to come out settled and composed. Murray nearly had his big moment against Florida, but the overtime interception erased a great comeback effort. The Dawgs have been in so many close games this year but have had the turnover or bad decision kill those opportunities to win three or four more games. Murray – and Green – won’t get a bigger stage this year.