Georgia football: What are Auburn’s options at tailback if Kerryon Johnson can‘t play?

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Always have a backup plan

The big story this week in the buildup to the SEC Championship Game — other than the whole “winner goes to the College Football Playoff, loser goes home” thing — is the status of Auburn tailback Kerryon Johnson, who injured his shoulder in the Iron Bowl win over Alabama.

Johnson has been the workhouse of Auburn’s offense this season with an SEC-leading 1,276 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also has the second-most carries in the conference, with 250. Johnson has 174 more carries than the team’s second-leading ball-carrier, Kamryn Pettway, who has missed most of this season with injury and won’t play in the SEC Championship. All told, Johnson toted the rock on 44 percent of Auburn’s running plays.

When asked about his status Monday, Johnson sounded confident about his ability to play against Georgia. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn described him as “day-to-day” on Tuesday. We probably won’t know whether Johnson will suit up until late in the week, and maybe not even until Saturday. But even if Johnson can play, there’s a chance he’ll be banged up enough that he can’t shoulder the load the way he has for Auburn all season up to this point, forcing Malzahn to call on other guys.

“They run a lot of the same plays,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said when asked about how the Auburn offense changes when going from Johnson to his backups. “They’ve run the quarterback more the last couple of games. They’ve got other backs, they’ve got another quarterback that can run. … They have other ways to share the carries if the burden is not on Kerryon.”

The first option behind Johnson is sophomore Kam Martin, who also left the Iron Bowl with an injury. Martin is second on the team in rushing yards with 409 and also has 2 touchdowns. He ran for 136 yards in the season-opener against Georgia Southern and had 83 yards the week before the Iron Bowl against Louisiana-Monroe. But in Auburn’s biggest games, he’s rarely seen. Martin didn’t get a carry against Clemson and only had 2 and 4 against Georgia and Alabama, respectively.

Behind Martin is the freshman pairing of Malik Miller and Devan Barrett, neither of whom has done much to speak of this season. Miller has 129 yards rushing and a touchdown on 4.0 yards/carry, while Barrett has 82 yards on 16 carries. Both could come out of nowhere and have amazing games in Johnson’s absence, or they could come out and lay an egg. We haven’t seen them play enough to know one way or the other.

Auburn also has the option of trying to get yards on the ground from players other than tailbacks. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham isn’t thought of as a runner, but he did a fantastic job carrying the ball last week against Alabama, rushing for 51 yards and a crucial touchdown. Backup quarterback Malik Willis is fifth on the team in rushing yards (221) and could see action to throw a wrinkle at Georgia.

If Johnson can’t play Saturday, Georgia should have an easier time against the Auburn ground game than it did earlier this month. But don’t chalk it up to a huge advantage to Georgia too quick. A major reason Johnson ran all over the Bulldogs last time out was because of the phenomenal blocking by Auburn’s offensive line. If the Georgia front seven gets dominated in the trenches again, it won’t matter who Auburn plays at tailback.

Just win, baby

The last edition of the College Football Playoff rankings that don’t matter a lick were released Tuesday. Georgia is ranked No. 6, behind No. 5 Alabama. Auburn is No. 2 behind No. 1 Clemson But it’s likely a win-and-in scenario for the Dawgs in what has become a de facto playoff quarterfinal. If Georgia beats Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, it’ll be in the top four when the one edition of the CFP rankings that do matter is released on Sunday.

Christian Payne questionable for SEC Championship

While Auburn is dealing with the Johnson injury, Georgia is relatively healthy. But the Bulldogs are dealing with an undisclosed injury to senior fullback Christian Payne that he sustained against Georgia Tech. Payne, one of the best blockers on the team, hasn’t fully returned to practice and could miss the SEC Championship Game.

“We’re not sure if he’s going to be able to play in the game or not,” Smart Tuesday, according to Seth Emerson of DawgNation. “He’s been out there as part of the game-planning, but hasn’t been able to practice as much as we’d like.”

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The post Georgia football: What are Auburn’s options at tailback if Kerryon Johnson can‘t play? appeared first on DawgNation.

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