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The Deep South’s Defensive Showdown

By Jim Johnson
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An in-depth statistical analysis of the matchups within the matchup, during the 121st iteration of "The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry".

The “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” commences once again this weekend, as Georgia and Auburn meet for 121st time.

Despite standing at 7-2, Auburn remains one of the ten teams still in the thick of the College Football Playoff race, given its remaining strength of schedule. Still, this serves as an effective elimination game for the Tigers.

Unbeaten, top-ranked Georgia can afford to drop this one, logistically speaking, but with an impending matchup against, presumably, Alabama in the SEC championship, the best case scenario would be to save that get-out-of-jail-free card until the conference title game.

Georgia’s star running back Nick Chubb is poised to pass Auburn legend Bo Jackson on the SEC’s all-time rushing list, and with the 13 yards needed to do so, it’s all but a mortal lock.

Boasting, arguably, the best stable of running backs in the nation, Georgia has a 45.7% rushing success rate (gaining 50% of the necessary yardage for a first down on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th down), which is 39th in the country, and an average of 1.24 IsoPPP (SBNation writer Bill Connelly’s explosiveness metric that measure equivalent points per successful play), which is fourth. It has gained at least five yards on 43.7% of carries (17th in FBS), 7.04 yards per carry (9th), and 30 carries of 20+ yards (4th).

With the largest share of the carry load, Chubb is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, and on plays where he reaches the second level, adds another six ‘highlight’ yards per carry, while picking up at least five yards 45% of the time.

Sony Michel is averaging 7.9 yards per carry, with 8.7 highlight yards per carry, and picks up at least five yards on 47.8% of rushes. He and Chubb are 5th and 6th in the country, respectively, based on Pro Football Focus’ measure of elusiveness. Chubb has forced 34 missed tackles on 140 runs (24.3%), while Michel has forced 23 on 90 (25.6%).

True freshman D’Andre Swift fought his way through a crowded backfield to earn himself the lionshare of the remaining carries. He’s been incredible, even amidst the company that he’s in, averaging 7.5 yards per carry, 7.7 highlight yards per carry, with a 48.1% success rate.

Of course, those guys couldn’t do it without an offensive line that has taken nearly unfathomable steps forward from last year. There’s still room to grow, but the group is creating 3.18 line yards per carry (a metric that attempts to separate what an offensive line does from what the ball carrier does, inasmuch as that’s possible) on standard downs (34th), 3.77 on passing downs (20th), while allowing stuffs (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage) on 18.8% of attempts (59th), and converting third and fourth down tries, with two or fewer yards to go, 77.1% of the time (26th).

Auburn, however, ought to be one of the handful of teams in college football that Georgia will struggle to impose its will upon.

Auburn’s defensive line is allowing an average of 3.77 line yards per passing down (78th), but just 2.28 on standard downs (11th), which is more important, and stuffing opposing runners 20.3% of the time (59th), but is allowing third or fourth and short conversion rushes on 68.8% of attempts.

Defensive tackle Derrick Brown leads the Tigers with 9 run stuffs, and is second amongst the starters with an allowed success rate of 14.3%. Beside him, Dontavius Russell has four run stuffs with a 34.6% allowed success rate and is 12th amongst SEC interior defenders with a 8.1% run stop percentage, which measure tackles that constitute a win for the defense (preventing the offense from achieving a ‘successful’ play).

Adding depth inside, Andre Williams has two run stuffs, with a 25% allowed success rate, and a 9% run stop percentage, good for sixth in the SEC at his position.

At defensive end, Marlon Davidson has picked up five stuffs with a 25% allowed success rate, and his backup, freshman Nick Coe, is second on the team with eight run stuffs, and a 0% allowed success rate (not a typo).

Coe is a freaky athlete that will be a force in this league for years to come.

On the edge, somewhere between outside linebacker and defensive end, Jeff Holland has emerged as one of the nation’s premier edge rushers. With eight runs stuffs, he trails only Brown, on the team, has a 13.8% allowed success rate, and a 6.9% run stop percentage (6th in the SEC for his position group). Oh, and he’s forced four fumbles, on some real Magic Mike stuff… get it? Because strips.

Deshaun Davis is sixth amongst SEC linebackers with a 9.2% run stop percentage. He’s also added seven stuffs on a 31% allowed success rate. Darrell Williams has notched four stuffs of his own, alongside Tre’ Williams, and Montavious Atkinson, both of whom have two. Tre’ Williams’ 28.1% allowed success rate leads the linebacking corps.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that, for as elusive as Chubb and Michel can be, Auburn’s linebackers are some of the most sure-tackling around. Darrell Williams has missed one tackle in 332 snaps (the 4th best rate in the SEC and top 20 in the country), while Atkinson has missed two in 217 (8th in the SEC), and Davis has missed four in 342.

It’s not just the front seven that’s getting in on the action, though. Strong safety Stephen Roberts has come up and made seven run stuffs with a 41.7% allowed success rate, which is lights out for a safety. He’s also missed a mere three tackles on 487 snaps, for the fourth best rate in SEC, amongst safeties. Tray Matthews, opposite Stephens, has just one stuff, but leads the SEC, and is fifth in college football, with a 7.6% run stop percentage.

As a complete unit, Auburn has allowed a 30.6% rushing success rate (3rd), .89 IsoPPP (53rd), 32.1% of carries to gain at least five yards (13th), 3.34 yards per carry (16th), and 7 rushes of 20+ yards (11th).

Should Auburn be able to keep Georgia’s herd of future NFL running backs at bay, it’s not as if Georgia has struggled to throw the ball. Admittedly, this is with a fairly small sample size from true freshman Jake Fromm, he’s 13th out of the 14 SEC quarterbacks in attempts per game, though.

In the sample size that does exist, Georgia has had a 44.7% passing success rate (29th), 1.74 IsoPPP (13th), 9.2 yards per attempt (8th), and 13 receptions go for 30+ yards (64th).

Again, Jake Fromm has yet to truly be tested in a situation where he, personally, would have to win a game for the Bulldogs, who run the ball at the 13th highest rate in the country on standard downs, and the 16th highest on passing downs. However, that doesn’t change the fact that his 172.71 passer rating is third in the nation, nor does he lack help, albeit based off of similarly small receiving sample sizes.

Senior Javon Wims has established himself as one of the league’s premier deep threats, averaging 2.52 yards per route run (8th in the SEC), a 66.7% catch rate on throws 20 or more yards downfield (3rd in the SEC and 6th in the country), and 11 yards per target and a 55.9% success rate, while dropping just one of his 25 total catchable balls.

Terry Godwin has seen a promising return to form, with 14.4 yards per target and a 61.3% success rate.

Swift has also inserted himself into the passing game 9.2 yards per target and a 57.1% success rate.

Up front, Isaiah Wynn has a dream transition to left tackle, allowing just one sack and three total pressures on 171 passing snaps. He’s 13th in the nation and first in the SEC for pass blocking efficiency, amongst centers.

Left guard Kendall Baker, however has not been as consistent, allowing six pressures and a sack on 159 passing snaps.

Lamont Gaillard, another offseason position changee, struggled early on at center, but has since found a groove, and has allowed four total pressures and no sacks on 174 passing snaps, which is sixth for his position, in the SEC. That doesn’t necessarily seem great, but consider that the conference has an absolutely ridiculous class of centers right now.

To Gaillard’s right, redshirt freshman guard Solomon Kindley and true freshman tackle Andrew Thomas have both exceeded expectations.

That said, Thomas could be in for a long day against Holland. There’s not a power five player in America with more sacks than the junior, and his 41 pressures on 193 rushes is equivalent to the fourth highest pass rush productivity in the country, according to PFF, and the highest in the SEC.

The defensive front, as a whole, possesses a 9.4% sack rate on standard downs (7th), and an 8% rate on passing downs (82nd). Bear in mind, the ranking disparity less indicates a weakness, rather a strategic decision to be less aggressive when opponents get behind schedule.

Auburn’s pass defense, altogether, has allowed a 31.6% success rate (8th), 1.18 IsoPPP (3rd), 5.7 yards per attempt (5th), and ten receptions of 30+ yards (30th).

Carlton Davis, the prototype at cornerback, has led the way, allowing 16 receptions on 39 throws into his coverage for an opposing passer rating of 61.6 (7th in the SEC), and 1.22 passes defensed per game (4th in the SEC).

Jamel Dean has added another six pass breakups, while Daniel Thomas has three and an interception, Stephen Roberts has four breakups, Tray Matthews has a pick, and Jeremiah Dinson has a breakup.

Superficially, it feels like forcing Jake Fromm to beat them should be Auburn’s primary plan of attack, but, given the sample size, it’s hard to say. As counterintuitive as it sounds, Auburn may be more well equipped to contain Georgia’s rush offense. Still, at least attempting to make the freshman carry the offense is probably the best course of action.

Auburn’s defense, one of the nation’s best, is better than Georgia’s offense. That said, Georgia’s defense, also one of the best in the sport, is better than Auburn's offense, on paper, in a vacuum, by a notably greater margin than the vice versa. This, unsurprisingly, is where Georgia separates itself, just as it has all season.

The Tigers are pretty run heavy in their own right. Not to the extent that Georgia is, but they hand it off at the 23rd highest rate in the country on standard downs. Now, on passing downs, there is a level of comfortability with Jarrett Stidham that Georgia does not enjoy with Fromm, so Malzahn and Lindsey only run it at the 95th highest rate in those scenarios.

Still, they keep it on the ground almost 65% of the time, overall.

When doing so, they’ve had a 48.3% success rate (20th), .89 IsoPPP (67th), 38.1% of carries go for at least five yards (74th), a 5.02 yards per carry average (35th), and 21 runs of 20+ yards (14th). So, while they’ve certainly ripped off some big plays, they don’t usually move it in chunks, rather efficiently and consistently simply staying on schedule.

As the feature back, Kerryon Johnson has averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and 6.3 highlight yards, while gaining five or more yards on 34.3% of attempts.

With Kamryn Pettway still, presumably, out, Kam Martin could see some touches, spelling Johnson. Smaller, shiftier, and a little more elusive at the second level, Martin can bring some extra sizzle to the affair. He, obviously in a much more limited sample size, has averaged 6.6 yards per carry, 8.1 highlight yards, and gained five or more yards 40.4% of the time.

Frankly, the backs are outperforming the offensive line, although, to Auburn’s credit, it has had to use a number of different combinations, up front, due to injuries, and has been relatively successful doing so, thanks in large part to Austin Golson’s versatility.

As a group, they are creating 3.2 line yards per carry on standard downs (31st), 3.21 on passing downs (74th), allowing stuffs on 15.6% carries (21st), and and converting third or fourth down short yardage runs 80.4% of the time.

Comparatively, Georgia’s front seven has allowed 2.68 line yards on standard downs (41st), and 2.29 on passing downs (14th), stuffed opposing ball carriers on 18.8% of runs (75th), and denied 52.6% of third and fourth down shirt yardage conversion rushes (5th).

The Bulldogs’ run defense is spearheaded by defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, who has four run stuffs on a 15% allowed success rate. Nose tackle John Atkins has three stuffs, an allowed success rate of 23.8%, and 9.5% run stop percentage, which is fourth in the SEC, and just outside the top 25, nationally, for interior defenders. Sophomore defensive tackle Tyler Clark has been forced to step into an increased role at times throughout the year, and has performed admirably, garnering four run stuffs with a 33.3% allowed success rate.

Beside those guys, at defensive end, Jonathan Ledbetter has another four stuffs, 26.1% allowed success rate, and 9.8% run stop percentage (6th in the SEC, at his position).

Yet, while the defensive line does what’s asked of it, the linebacking corps is what makes Georgia’s run defense so formidable.

On the edge, Lorenzo Carter has been more impactful as a pass rusher, but he has three stuffs, a 31% allowed success rate, and a 4.4% run stop percentage, good for 15th amongst SEC edge rushers. Davin Bellamy has four stuffs, a 31.8% allowed success rate, and a 5.9% run stop percentage (9th amongst SEC edge rushers). Behind those two seniors, junior D’Andre Walker has been a consistent producer with four stuffs and an 18.8% allowed success rate.

As far as the interior rotation, the Bulldogs will have Natrez Patrick back in the mix, following his suspension. Prior to the missed time, he had two run stuffs and a 41.2% allowed success rate. In his stead, Reggie Carter maintained a 42.1% allowed success rate, while freshman Monty Rice notched three run stuffs with a 33.3% allowed success rate.

That should do it for the linebackers. Just kidding.

Roquan Smith has missed one lone, singular tackle on 409 snaps, this season. Only one power five linebacker that’s played at least 200 snaps has been as efficient or sure a tackler. He leads the team with eight run stuffs and his 26.5% allowed success rate is tops amongst the linebackers, and, somehow, better than some of the defensive linemen. Perhaps best defining his impact, his 16.7% run stop percentage is the highest out of any FBS player, across all positions.

Coupled with his coverage ability, and even his pass rushing prowess, it feels safe to say that Roquan Smith is the best linebacker in college football. It’s tougher to compare across positions but there’s a strong argument to be made that he might even be the best overall defender in the country, full stop.

Safety J.R. Reed does his part to stop the run, too. Reed has 5 run stuffs with a 46.8% allowed success rate and a 6.5% run stop percentage (16th in the country, 2nd in the SEC). Plus, his three missed tackles on 472 snaps, and Dominick Sanders’ 2 missed tackles on 473 snaps give the safety tandem the fifth and sixth highest tackling efficiencies for SEC safeties.

If Notre Dame, the best rushing offense in college football, couldn’t run it against Georgia, Auburn probably won’t be able to either. Jarrett Stidham will have to be at his very best to give Auburn a chance to score with some modicum of consistency.

Then again, Stidham will be the best passer Georgia has seen in 2017. There could be a case for Jake Bentley, just last week, but the South Carolina signal caller lacks options without Deebo Samuel. Compared to the Gamecocks, Stidham will have infinitely more weapons at his disposal.

The transfer from Baylor boasts a 156.8 passer rating (13th), a 47.7% adjusted completion percentage on deep balls (18th in FBS, 2nd in the SEC), and a 129.7 pass rating on throws that travel 20 or more yards downfield (3rd). He has shown a substantial dropoff in efficacy under pressure, although most every quarterback does, with an 18.5% drop in adjusted completion percentage and a 50% drop in passer rating. That said, when improvising outside of the pocket, or on rollouts, he’s completing just shy of 66% of his attempts, which is third amongst Power 5 passers.

Ryan Davis has been his most reliable option, with 2.7 yards per route run (6th in the SEC), 8.5 yards per target, a 57.9% success rate, and just one drop on 49 catchable balls, for the 18th highest catch rate in the country, and the highest in the SEC.

Darius Slayton has been Stidham’s second-most targeted pass catcher, and, despite his 34.2% success rate, is averaging 10.6 yards per target.

Meanwhile Will Hastings has become one of the most deadly deep threats in college football, averaging 3.23 yards per route run (1st in the SEC, 10th in FBS), 13.7 yards per target, a 55.6% success rate, and a 75% deep ball catch rate (2nd in the SEC, 4th in FBS).

Eli Stove rounds out the group of athletes receiving over 10% of Stidham’s attempts, averaging 8 yards per target, with a 46.2% success rate.

Auburn, at the skill positions, and behind center, has the makings of an elite college passing attack, but, as displayed by Stidham’s numbers under pressure, that is heavily reliant upon the protection.

As previously mentioned, Auburn has been playing o-line roulette, this season. However, its best iteration should be fully available for Georgia. That means Austin Golson, the man who has held the whole thing together, at left tackle, Mike Horton at left guard, Casey Dunn at center, Braden Smith at right guard, and Darius James at right tackle.

Dunn has been solid in pass pro, this year, allowing two pressure and no sacks on 140 pass blocking snaps, for the third highest efficiency mark in the SEC, for centers.

Smith, however, has been the most reliable, with only three total pressures allowed on 266 passing snaps, for the highest pass blocking efficiency among SEC guards.

There has been a weak link, though, in Darius James. The senior has given up nine pressures and two sacks in 204 passing snaps. It is imperative that he, and the rest of this group, is at its best, on Saturday.

As a whole, Auburn’s pass offense has had a 42.4% passing success rate (50th), 1.65 IsoPPP (21st), 9 yards per attempt (10th), and 18 receptions of 30+ yards (18th).

For a point of reference, Georgia’s pass defense has allowed a 24.2% success rate (15th), 1.44 IsoPPP (41st), 5.3 yards per attempt (2nd), and seven receptions of 30+ yards (5th).

Much of Georgia’s success against the pass can be attributed to the pressure up front. It isn’t a leading sack team, but they do get after quarterbacks and make them uncomfortable.

For his position group, Jonathan Ledbetter is sixth in the SEC, with 12 pressures on 120 rushes, for a 10% pressure rate.

Davin Bellamy, more often from the right side, although nearly as effective from the left, has compiled 14 pressures on 152 rushes.

Rotating in, and, again, primarily off the right edge, D’Andre Walker has 10 pressures on 57 rushes, which, granted on a small sample size, is sixth in the league amongst edge rushers.

And, speaking of small sample sizes, even Roquan smith has gotten in on the action, with 5 pressures on 23 rushes, good for seventh in the SEC, at his position.

This, though, is where Lorenzo Carter is, at long last, living up to his billing, and going to make a lot of money soon. His 22 pressures on 112 rushes is equivalent to the 9th highest pass rush productivity in college football, according to PFF, and second only to Jeff Holland in the SEC.

Matched up with Auburn’s Darius James, Carter could have a field day.

In the secondary, Deandre Baker has been one of the best cornerbacks in the country, allowing 15 catches on 38 throws into his coverage for a 42.1 opposing passer rating (5th in the SEC), with 1.11 passes defensed per game (7th in the SEC).

Opposite Baker, Malkom Parrish has been solid since returning to the squad, albeit underwhelming, as has Tyrique McGhee in his time.

Aaron Davis, at the ‘Star’ position has been a bit of a liability. As a slot corner, he has allowed 13 receptions on 17 throws into his coverage for a 110.2 passer rating. He has actually been better on the boundary, allowing 21 receptions on 34 targets for an 87.4 passer rating.

Meanwhile, safeties Dominick Sanders and J.R. Reed have combined for five interceptions and eight pass breakups.

Ultimately, both of these defenses are more efficient than either of the offenses.

Georgia’s defense is better at containing explosiveness than Auburn is explosive. On paper, Georgia’s offense has an ever-so-slight edge over Auburn’s defense in the explosiveness battle, but it’s close enough to call it a wash.

Factoring in turnover luck, that battle is too close to call.

Now, the drive finishing battle is fascinating and could prove to be somewhat decisive in the outcome. Georgia with the ball inside Auburn’s own 40-yard line is the can’t-miss matchup within this matchup. Georgia averages 5.38 points per trip inside the 40, the third highest total in the country. Auburn’s defense, however, allows an average of just 2.93 points per trip inside their own 40-yard line, which is the best mark in the sport. On the flip side of the drive finishing battle, Georgia has a more noticeable edge over Auburn, with 3.89 points per trip allowed (28th) to 4.61 points scored per trip (52nd).

In reality, though, and people don’t always want to talk about it, special teams presents the greatest disparity in this matchup.

The team that wins the field position battle wins the game 72% of the time. Georgia, on average, starts drives at the 31.6 yard line (23rd), while their opponents start at the 27.8 (35th). Auburn’s average drive starts at the 29.3 (72nd), with their opponents beginning at the 29.8 (85th).

According to SBNation writer Bill Connelly’s opponent adjusted S&P ratings. Georgia is second in the country in combined special teams -- kickoffs, punts, field goals, PATs, returns, coverage, all of it. Auburn, on the other hand is 54th.

Daniel Carlson may well be one of the SEC’s all-time great kickers, but Goggles, and the rest of the oh-so-important oft-forgotten special teamers from Athens, may be what ends Auburn’s playoff aspirations.

Regardless, that’s just on paper, and there’s a reason these games are played on the field. In a series that dates back 125 years, with a record that’s still only separated by two measly games, ‘on paper’ doesn’t mean a whole helluva lot.

The only sure thing is that, Saturday, two of the baddest defenses in college football will face off against some of the most talented running backs, in an old-school, smash mouth battle; the visitors looking to stay unbeaten, the home team fighting for its playoff life.

November’s the best.

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