- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here are five factors to watch today as No. 25 Georgia visits No. 7 Auburn.
Defending the zone read: You've likely read this week that the No. 1 key for Georgia today is defending Auburn's running game, which leads the SEC and ranks third nationally at 320 yards per game. The centerpiece of that rushing attack is the zone-read run, where quarterback Nick Marshall has the option to hand off or run himself based on what he sees from the defense.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Auburn leads the SEC in yards (150.5 ypg), touchdowns (17) and 10-yard plays (39) on zone-read runs and has gained at least 100 yards on such plays in six out of the last seven games. Marshall has run 62 times out of his 104 total carries on the zone read and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt -- including 221 yards against Tennessee last week, the most such yards by an AQ player in a game this season.
Georgia's edge players -- outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd and nickelback Josh Harvey-Clemons -- must play a disciplined game along with linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson in order to defend those plays. The Bulldogs have defended the run well overall, ranking fourth in the SEC with 120.6 yards allowed per game, but they have been erratic at setting the edge -- and that could be an important factor against Auburn.
Bulldogs' returning weapons: Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett have been back for a couple weeks. Now tight end Arthur Lynch and receiver Chris Conley could rejoin them in Georgia's offensive lineup. All of a sudden, Georgia's formerly explosive offense looks a lot more like the group that lit up scoreboards early in the season.
Tailback Gurley isn't back at 100 percent -- how big of a workload he can assume will be one of the biggest keys today -- but quarterback Aaron Murray should have some productive weapons at his disposal. Despite the injuries that have hit his team, Murray still has the sixth-best opponent-adjusted Total QBR (86.7 in the FBS this season and is completing 52.4 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more. The Bulldogs will likely look to strike on the big play today.
Special teams woes: Perhaps the scariest matchup for Georgia is its special teams units against Auburn's. UGA special teams ace Connor Norman said earlier this week that the distinguishing characteristic of Auburn return men Corey Grant and Chris Davis -- both of whom returned kicks for touchdowns last week -- and Tre Mason is their speed and aggressiveness in hitting the hole. Georgia is 13th in the SEC in kickoff coverage (38.1 yards per return), but ranks 18th nationally in punt return defense (4.1). The Bulldogs must also avoid the other special teams meltdowns like blocked punts and bad snaps that have plagued them at points this season.
Defending Auburn offense: The zone-read run is only one element of Auburn's offense that will concern Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Marshall is an erratic thrower, but he has had success throwing the deep ball to Sammie Coates (26 catches for 648 and 5 TDs), who ranks second nationally with 24.9 yards per catch, and the wheel route to various receivers, including tight end C.J. Uzomah. It all starts with the run, though, as Auburn leads all AQ schools this season in rushing yards before contact (2,097 of its 3,200 yards came before the first hit).
An interesting side note in Georgia's attempt to defend the Tigers is that Harvey-Clemons has actually played the Marshall role in this scheme. He said his coach at Lowndes High School attended a coaching clinic at Auburn and implemented Gus Malzahn's offense with the athletic Harvey-Clemons moonlighting at quarterback in the Wing-T offshoot. The Vikings shied away from using Harvey-Clemons in that position as the season progressed because of the hits he was taking and because the fatigue from playing the position was affecting him on defense. But he said his time executing the offense could be of assistance on defense today as he tries to diagnose what Marshall and company are attempting.
Beat the press: Keep an eye on the Georgia receivers' abilities to get off the line as they run their pass routes. Auburn's defensive backs are known for their aggressive, press-coverage tactics as they try to disrupt wideouts' timing with their quarterbacks and provide an extra second or two for their pass rushers to record a sack. Auburn has enjoyed mixed results in that endeavor. The Tigers are fourth in the SEC with 23 sacks and 11 interceptions, but they're also 11th in the league in pass defense, surrendering 238.8 passing yards per game.
12hSam Khan Jr.