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Auburn offense shell of title self

ATHENS, Ga. -- Casual observers might look at Auburn's offensive numbers and assume that Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton's departure is the reason for the steep decline.

Yes, that is unquestionably the biggest difference between this year's Auburn club and the one that went undefeated and won the BCS national title last year, but Tigers coach Gene Chizik said there is much more to it than that. The Tigers (6-3, 4-2 SEC) also lost four of five starters on the offensive line and three key receivers from the title team.

"[We're] replacing virtually everyone on the offense," Chizik said. "We've got a couple of guys returning, but anytime you've got to deal with losing that many offensive linemen, that many really, really good receivers and your quarterback, that's challenging in itself. So it's not about one guy, it's about replacing so many guys that had a lot of experience on our football team."

Entering Saturday's game at Georgia (7-2, 5-1), the statistical difference is striking between this season's Tigers and last year's offensive juggernaut. They've dropped from seventh in total offense to 89th (499 yards per game to 354), from seventh in scoring to 70th (41.2 points per game to 26.1), from fifth in rushing to 31st (284 ypg to 191) and from 66th in passing to 108th (214 ypg to 163).

The Tigers' scheme remains the same -- they continue to run Gus Malzahn's run-driven spread offense -- yet their massive roster turnover and less effective play at the quarterback position prevents them from executing it as effectively.

But that does not mean Auburn's offense is not dangerous. Running backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb provide a dynamic 1-2 punch, and the Tigers benefited from an open date that allowed injured receivers Emory Blake and Trovon Reed to return to health.

"They run the same offense, it's just that they have obviously a different guy at quarterback, and they try to get some of those type runs. They just can't do it with just one person," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "But really systematically they're the same as they've been in the past, and their players understand their concepts and they do a good job with it."

It all starts with the run in Malzahn's high-speed, no-huddle attack. The Tigers have run the ball 64 percent of the time, with Dyer (186 carries for 989 yards and nine touchdowns) getting the bulk of the work. McCalebb (84 carries, 448 yards) typically handles outside runs.

"One of the main things you have to do is just tackle well, because those guys can definitely make you miss -- and if they make you miss, I can guarantee you they'll definitely try to take it to the house," Georgia linebacker Mike Gilliard said.

They haven't taken it to the house this year nearly as frequently without Newton under center to scare opposing defenses. The Tigers benched quarterback Barrett Trotter midway through an Oct. 15 win against Florida in favor of Clint Moseley, who started the last two games -- a 45-10 loss to top-ranked LSU and a 41-23 win against Ole Miss.

Moseley is a traditional drop-back quarterback far different from Newton, who was more dangerous with his feet than with his arm but was capable of making big plays both on the ground and through the air. Moseley (30-for-44, 425 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) probably falls more into the "game manager" category at quarterback.

"I think he does a pretty good job," Georgia defensive end Abry Jones said. "They really don't ask him to do too much, seeing all the playmakers they have. He does a good job of not really giving the game away for them."

However, it would be helpful if Moseley throws the ball effectively enough to free things up a bit for the running game.

The Tigers haven't passed for more than 200 yards in a game since their season-opening 42-38 comeback victory against Utah State, but if Moseley could make defenses a bit more concerned about the pass, the misdirection and formation shifts in Malzahn's offense might become even more effective.

"Their offense can definitely trick you," Gilliard said. "You could be running one way and the ball will be going the other way. I feel like that's one of the main things, this is a very, very tricky offense."

Newton and the Tigers embarrassed the Bulldogs last season, rallying from a 21-7 deficit to win 49-31, with Newton rushing for 151 yards, passing for 148 and accounting for four touchdowns.

Newton left college a year early to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers, so Georgia's defenders can't seek any retribution against him. Instead, Newton's successors running Auburn's offense will have to do.

"I remember us being up by two touchdowns and then just like that it was gone," Georgia defensive back Sanders Commings said. "A lot of that had to do with Cam Newton. He was great. I wish I had the opportunity to play him again, but he's gone now. I guess we've just got to come out and take it out on his old team."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.