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Round 2: A Whole New Ball Game

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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ESPN’s FPI gives Auburn a 50.5% chance to win, while Bill Connelly’s S&P+ gives Georgia a 53% win probability.

The Auburn-Georgia SEC Championship rematch is especially fascinating because it is, well, a rematch. That, plus it being an effective play-in to the playoff, makes it, arguably, the most intriguing matchup, er, re-matchup, of the conference title week slate.

Granted, Auburn took Georgia to the woodshed a few weeks ago, knocking off the then #1 Bulldogs to the tune of 40-17. The final score may not even reflect the sort of domination that it truly was.

Yet, less than a month later, ESPN’s FPI gives Auburn a 50.5% chance to win, while Bill Connelly’s S&P+ gives Georgia a 53% win probability. It’s hard to beat a good team twice.

Utilizing both the advanced and more traditional metrics, from the entire season, as well as from these two teams’ prior meeting, it’s pretty clear that these are two of the best and most complete teams in college football. Neither is without flaws, but those are few and far between.

That said, here is the matchup within the matchup in which each team has the biggest advantage, in each facet of the game:

Auburn’s Offense: North-South Run Game

Obviously, having Kerryon Johnson would help greatly in this respect -- and the healthier, the better -- as he leads the SEC in rushing yards between the tackles. However, the Tigers’ North-South rushing attack is only semi-dependent on the late season, dark horse Heisman candidate.

It was the big boys up front who allowed Auburn to impose its will upon the visitors. Auburn’s offensive line has not been as dominant, all year, as it was against Georgia. Then again, it hadn’t really been as healthy, all year, as it was against Georgia.

On the whole, this season, Auburn ranks 24th in adjusted line yards while Georgia’s defense ranks 29th. Auburn has gained five yards or more on just 38.9% of runs (62nd in FBS), whereas Georgia has allowed 34.2% to go for five or more. Against Georgia, during the regular season, Auburn rushed for at least five yards on 50% of its carries. So, the extent of the domination was unexpected. It was arguably an anomaly.

What now seems predictable, and a trend that ought to continue, was the lack of negative plays allowed by Auburn’s front. For the season, Auburn has allowed stuffs on 14.7% of runs (11th) and has converted 79.7% of runs on third and fourth down with two or fewer yards to go (13th), to Georgia’s 17.1% stuff rate (95th), and 62.5% allowed power success rate (31st).

Georgia has a very good run defense. Their allowed success rate is in the top 20, nationally, and yet they don’t pile up tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. That’s because the linebackers make that group, not the defensive line. Teams may not get past Roquan Smith, but, sometimes, getting to him is enough to stay on schedule.

Georgia’s Offense: ???

This is in no way meant to be disrespectful to Georgia. The fact is, Auburn has the best defense in college football. The last time these teams squared off, Georgia’s offense put up season lows in points, total yards, yards per play, rushing yards, and third down conversion percentage.

Now, Georgia’s offense is better than it showed on November 11th. For the campaign, it ranks 17th in S&P+, 4th in FEI, and 9th in points per drive.

Theoretically, they should be much better, on Saturday, but it starts up front. This is pretty straightforward: if Georgia wins in the trenches, they have a shot, if not, they don’t.

Georgia ranks 32nd in the country with an allowed stuff rate of 17.1%. Auburn stuffed them on 18.5% of runs, excluding garbage time. Georgia boasts a top 15 rushing success rate of 48.9%. Auburn held them to 37.5%.

There are no holes in Auburn’s defense. There is no analytical deficiency, no statistical point to potentially exploit, only destruction from sideline to shining sideline.

Either Georgia’s offensive line steps up or the outcome, if not the score, will feel awfully familiar.

Auburn’s Defense: Pass Rush

Auburn’s pass rush was all over Jake Fromm, on the Plains. The freshman was sacked four times on 32 dropbacks, a 12.5% sack rate, and pressured ten times, for a 31.25% pressure rate, which has got to be a criminal offense in, like, at least 29 states. Oh yeah, and they did so on a grand total of four blitzes.

The unit has been great all year, led by Jeff Holland who is second in the nation in total pressures. On the whole, they are 16th in opponent adjusted sack rate, averaging one per 9.3% of standard downs (5th), and 8.9% of passing downs (35th). Their performance against Georgia was excellent, but not so ridiculous that it can’t be repeated.

Pass protection is something that has been a problem for the ‘Dawgs, who rank 64th in opponent adjusted sack rate allowed, giving one up on 6.5% of both standard downs (97th) and passing downs (56th). It’s usually a non-issue because of the run game, but that may not be the case this weekend.

It’s worth noting that Fromm has the highest completion percentage against the blitz out of all Power 5 passers (curiously enough, Stidham is second). However, he completed just one of his four against the blitz in the last matchup against Auburn.

Georgia better a) hope that was a fluke, and b) hope that Kevin Steele feels compelled to use more than four blitzes, as, ideally for the Red and Black, that would indicate that Jeff Holland and the rest of the front four are not enough on their own.

Although, after Holland picked up a sack and three hurries, whilst largely exposing freshman tackle Andrew Thomas, last time, that feels unlikely.

Georgia’s Defense: Limiting Big Runs

There is no doubting the efficacy of Auburn’s rushing offense, but the Tigers do not pile up explosive runs, as denoted by their .88 rushing IsoPPP (78th). On the flipside, Georgia’s defense prevents big runs almost as well as any team in the nation, with an allowed rushing IsoPPP of .71 (8th).

Auburn has averaged 5.03 yards per carry (31st), this year. Georgia has allowed 3.45 (17th).

Auburn averaged 5.2 yards per carry against Georgia, on November 11th. The Tigers averaged fewer yards per carry in six of their other eleven games, this season, and four of their other seven conference matchups.

Six of Auburn’s 46 carries went for 10+ yards against Georgia, for a rate of 13%. Auburn has averaged 6.1 10+ yards carries per game this year, at a rate of 13.1%.

In other words, Auburn made Georgia look average to below average, when it came to limiting explosive plays on the ground, something they generally excel at. Math says that won’t happen again.

Expect Georgia to remedy its previous shortcomings, at least in this respect, in Atlanta.

Auburn’s Special Teams: Having Daniel Carlson

This, as crazy as it sounds, given that Carlson is one of the greatest kickers in SEC history, was even a little bit of a reach. That has nothing to do with Carlson, Georgia is simply, top to bottom, arguably, the best in the country when it comes to special teams.

Carlson may give Auburn a little more field goal range, relative to Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship, but he’s not even matching Blankenship’s touchback percentage, this season.

Frankly, Auburn doesn’t really hold any special teams advantages over Georgia, based on their full bodies of work this year. There were, undeniably, some big special teams plays that went in Auburn’s favor, the first go-round, but it would be surprising to see it shake out like that again.

Georgia’s Special Teams: Nearly Everything Else

Georgia ranks 17th in field goal value per kick, 5th in both punt and kickoff success rate, 27th in both punt and kick return success rate, and 1st in combined special teams S&P+.

Auburn ranks 13th in field goal value per kick, 112th in punt success rate, 12th in kickoff success rate, 83rd in punt return success rate, 118th in kick return success rate, and 58th in combined special teams S&P+.

Georgia is 32nd in allowed punt return average, Auburn is 116th.

Georgia is 15th in yards per kick return, Auburn is 53rd.

Georgia is 49th in opponent kick return average, Auburn is last in the country.

Only three teams have more punt returns of 10+ yards than Georgia. Georgia has twice as many of those as Auburn.

It goes on like that for awhile. Auburn isn’t even bad on special teams. Georgia just happens to be one of the best.

So far in 2017, the team that has won the field position battle has won the game 71% of the time. Georgia’s average starting field position, on both sides of the ball, ranks in the top 30. Auburn’s is 85th on offense, and 58th on defense.

This third, oft forgotten, facet of the game could be what ultimately swings it in Georgia’s favor.

Best Strength on Strength Matchup: Drive Finishing

Georgia’s offense currently stands at number four in the country, averaging 5.38 points per trip inside the opposing 40-yard line. Auburn’s defense is second in the country, allowing only 3.11 points per trip inside their own 40-yard line.

Georgia has scored on 97.8% of their red zone appearances (1st), and found the end zone on 73.3% of them (19th). Auburn has, admittedly, been less effective in their red zone defense -- something they’ve addressed by allowing teams into the red zone the 9th least in FBS.

In Auburn-Georgia, part one, the Bulldogs did manage to score touchdowns on 100% of their red zone tries, and get points on 75% of their trips inside the 40-yard line. The problem is, they only got in the red zone twice, 1.75 times fewer than their per game mean, and inside the 40 four times, for 4.25 points per trip, which is notably below the national average, albeit still much higher than what Auburn has been allowing, otherwise.

This game needs no hyping up. It boasts two of the best, most complete teams in college football, both vying for a playoff spot. For anyone assuming it will simply be a repeat of November 11th, get real. Auburn may well walk away victorious, yet again, but this is on a neutral field, with a lot more on the line for Georgia.

Neither of these teams have any glaring weaknesses, nor are they totally infallible. It might not take a perfect game to leave Atlanta with ‘W’, just really, really, ridiculously close.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP