ATHENS — You could say one of two things about Brandon Marcello. He either left Mississippi too soon or came to Birmingham at just the right time.
I first met Marcello when he was covering Mississippi State for the The Jackson Clarion-Ledger. But then he left his home state of Mississippi last spring to go to work for The Birmingham News and Al.com covering the Auburn Tigers.
Talk about some good timing. Marcello arrived on The Plains just in time to cover one of the most miraculous seasons in Auburn history. So he was there to chronicle the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” when the Tigers broke Georgia’s heart with 25 seconds remaining. And he was there the next week to write about the “Kick Six” when Chris Davis returned a missed field goal 109 yards to beat Alabama a week later.
Marcello was also be on hand Saturday night when Auburn visits Sanford Stadium for the first time in three years. Marcello graciously agreed to be our guest for this week’s “Opposing View” to tell us what to expect from Georgia’s visitors. You can follow him on twitter @bmarcello and you can read his reports on Auburn HERE on Al.com.
Here’s how Marcello answered the five questions I had for him. ….
Q: What was it like covering Auburn during that incredible run last year? And where do you stand in the argument that the Tigers were the world’s luckiest team or the world’s most opportunistic team?
Marcello: “I’m somewhere in the middle, but let’s just go with the facts here: the Prayer at Jordan-Hare was a miracle mixed with tough-as-nails defense stepping up at the end. It was fourth-and-long and if not for a tipped pass, Ricardo Louis does not catch the ball and run into the end zone. With that said, Georgia had a shot at winning that game on the next drive. People tend to forget that. Dee Ford made a big play by drilling Aaron Murray in the red zone to end the game. Auburn stepped up when it had to and they got some help with the tipped pass. Also, Nick Marshall’s arm strength helped make that play go and Louis was fantastic seeking out and feeling the ball. I’m not sure another quarterback on either roster could have thrown the ball that deep at that trajectory. So, count that as a dash of luck mixed a big-time defensive stop in the red zone.
“Now, the Kick Six was not luck. That was just great planning and coaching by the Tigers, who called timeout to make a late switch — Ryan Smith was in the end zone instead of Chris Davis at first glance — and Alabama simply did not have enough fast guys on the field to defend the possibility of a missed kick being returned. If Smith catches the ball, I’m not sure he returns it for a score like Davis. Auburn played great at times in that game and stemmed the Tide in the second half. A third-down stop by Carl Lawson near the red zone was especially impressive. That game was all about Auburn making plays. If the game went to overtime, I think Auburn would have come out on top because of the way it was playing in the fourth quarter. The Tigers had all the momentum with Nick Marshall hitting Sammie Coates on a pop pass to tied the game in the final minute.
“Last season was crazy. I’ve never seen one like it and likely never will again. It’s easy to forget the fourth-quarter comebacks against Mississippi State and Texas A&M (the victory against the Aggies was probably the most entertaining game of Auburn’s season, to be honest).
“The ‘team of destiny’ moniker seemed apt at the time. When Tre Mason scored a touchdown with less than 2 minutes remaining in the BCS Championship Game, I just figured Auburn was going to hold on and win. It was their year, after all, and what a way to end it with your Heisman finalist scoring the go-ahead touchdown and breaking Bo Jackson’s record with an incredibly powerful run. The defense, however, stubbed its toe and two defenders ran into each other to set up Jameis Winston for the game-winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining. If one player makes the tackle, I’m not so sure the Seminoles win that game.
“It was a crazy season, and an amazing one to cover as a storyteller. There never seemed to be enough time to tell every story I wanted to and that is my one regret. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about that team and season. I’m not sure how Auburn can follow it up. Maybe winning out, sneaking into the College Football Playoff and knocking off Florida State for the national title would be just as special, but not nearly as memorable and dramatic as those incredibly potent final seconds with everything on the line against Georgia, Alabama and FSU last season.”
Q. What in the world happened in that game against Texas A&M? Was it as big of a surprise to those who follow the team closely as it was to the rest of us?
Marcello: “I was expecting a close, back-and-forth scoring affair with Auburn winning by double digits thanks to a stronger defensive performance in the first half. The defense has been downright horrible over the last month of the season, and as deadly as the offense is, playing from behind doesn’t come easy for the Tigers, especially with the defense struggling to stop passing attacks. The Tigers have some big issues on defense, especially at the safety spots, and the last three opponents — South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M — have done a great job exploiting it. Other teams failed to do so earlier in the season, and now the secret is out.”
Q: What’s your feeling on this year’s matchup with Georgia? Does Todd Gurley and his band of brothers look like an overwhelming challenge for the Aubie D or does the Bulldogs’ defense look ripe for the taking by Nick Marshall and his fleet-footed friends?
Marcello: “I think Ellis Johnson’s defense is more suited for Georgia’s offense than the attacks he had to face in the last three weeks. With that said, this game is going to rely more on Hutson Mason’s arm than Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb’s legs, In my opinion. Auburn has proven capable of stopping the run during the course of the season. Georgia’s balance should worry the Tigers, especially with the explosive plays last week at Kentucky. We’ll find out Saturday.”
Q: Obviously Auburn has its rivalry with Alabama and that overshadows everything. But where would you say Georgia and the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry falls in terms of importance among the fan base?
Marcello: “I think it’s behind, Alabama, for sure. It’s the second-best game of the season. This season seems a bit different, however. Not a lot of fans are talking about the game from the simple standpoint of it being “Georgia.” Fans seem pretty upset about the Tigers’ defense and they’re wondering about the future rather than the present. A heartbreaking loss that knocked Auburn — for the moment — out of the playoff picture will do that, but a win at Georgia would certainly right the ship. I’m sure fans will be focusing more on the Bulldogs when Friday hits. They’re still in the maroon haze. They’ll find their way out of it when game time draws near.”
Q: Georgia has severely limited access for media this week in an attempt to limit the distractions around Gurley’s return. That meant we got four players of UGA’s choosing and no assistant coaches on Tuesday and no players of our choosing or otherwise on Monday or Wednesday as is the usual case. What’s the player and coach access like at Auburn? Should we be complaining over here?
Marcello: “We have similar access here at Auburn, and it’s been that way since Gus Malzahn was hired. We usually get two to five players a week, and coordinators on Sunday night. The coordinators are great and sometimes provide some insight, so that really helps reporters’ stories through the week.
“Our player requests rarely are fulfilled during the week, however, and like at Georgia this week they just send in whoever they want — a few seniors from the state of Georgia. Nick Marshall and Ricardo Louis, however, have not been made available this week. We’d love to talk to them about last year’s Prayer at Jordan-Hare, and obviously we’d like to chat with Nick to talk about his Georgia ties. Marshall has only been made available to reporters after games. Louis and Marshall talked after the game, but our time with them was short. We get up to 10 players after games (almost all at once), but it’s a madhouse with people trying to weave through a small room during a 15-minute period. Marshall rarely stays beyond 5 minutes.
“Simply put, it’s tough to talk to everyone you want to in the room with 20-plus people roaming from corner to corner attempting to ask questions to multiple players about that night’s game — and them somehow get a question or two in about next week. The access could be better, but it could be worse. I’m not complaining too much. You can still tell stories outside the walls, after all.”
As for a prediction for Saturday night’s 7:15 game at Sanford Stadium, Marcello wasn’t ready to make a call ….
“I have yet to settle on a score — or a victor — but I think we’re going to see the makings of a shootout early. Much like my prediction for the Texas A&M game, one team is going to figure things out on defense in the second half and that will be the difference. Who will it be? I’m not sure.”