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David Paschall | Chattanooga Times Free Press | November 28, 2018

SEC Championship: Georgia secondary to challenge Alabama receivers

ATHENS, Ga. — When Georgia football coach Kirby Smart began his career as a Bulldogs defensive back in the mid-1990s, Florida had its "Fun 'N' Gun" offense in high gear under the direction of Steve Spurrier and guided by quarterback Danny Wuerffel.

Wuerffel won a Heisman Trophy by throwing to receivers Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard and Jacquez Green, who often achieved great separation from opposing defensive backs, but Smart believes he may have had it easy compared to this week's task of stopping Alabama's offense led by Heisman favorite Tua Tagovailoa.

"Those teams at Florida had elite wideouts and good quarterbacks, but their quarterbacks were mostly stable, sitting-in-the-pocket guys," Smart said Monday. "The young man we're playing now can run and can make the throws and make the checks. They've got really good backs, and you don't think about the backs who played at Florida back then.

"These guys have the complete package, and when you look across the board on the offensive unit, there is not a glaring weakness there. They've got physical offensive linemen and can run the ball, but they just choose to score faster in other ways."

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Top-ranked Alabama has set a program record with 588 points and is averaging 49 points per contest entering Saturday afternoon's Southeastern Conference championship showdown against Smart's No. 4 Bulldogs. The Crimson Tide's passing game has been a dizzying three-month pinball machine, with Tagovailoa having completed 189 of 269 passes (70.3 percent) for 3,189 yards with a school-record 36 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

Their top five receivers average more than 17.3 yards per catch, with sophomore Jerry Jeudy leading the way with 56 receptions for 1,079 yards (19.3 per catch) and 11 touchdowns. Freshman Jaylen Waddle has been an instant hit with 37 catches for 690 yards (18.6) and six touchdowns, while junior tight end Irv Smith is a prominent factor as well with 35 receptions for 613 yards (17.5) and seven scores.

Alabama's top two running backs — Damien Harris and Najee Harris — are each averaging more than 6 yards a carry, but the Crimson Tide's healthy 205.9 rushing yards per game has been overshadowed by their 332.1 aerial yards per contest.

"It's the best personality for this group on offense that we could possibly have relative to the players that we have," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Georgia will seek to counter Alabama's downfield attack with all three defensive levels, beginning with a front that hopes to put pressure on Tagovailoa. That has been easier said than done this season, as the 6-foot-2, 218-pounder has rushed 45 times for 211 yards (4.7) and five touchdowns.

In last weekend's 52-21 rout of Auburn, Tagovailoa had a 7-yard touchdown run and a long carry of 21.

"We've got to hunt and have our pass-rushers on point, but we've also got to settle down and not be surprised by anything," Bulldogs senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said. "It's still Alabama, so they're not going to pass the ball the whole game. They're an SEC team, so they're going to run the football."

Georgia's secondary has not yielded many big plays this season, with its 9.51 yards allowed per completion ranking second nationally to Washington. Senior cornerback Deandre Baker has been as productive as anyone nationally at his position, while the opposite corner had been held down by true freshman Tyson Campbell but more recently headed by redshirt freshman Eric Stokes.

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The Bulldogs are allowing 175.1 passing yards a game, which ranks 13th nationally, so something is going to give.

"Our guys get to go cover what is one of the most elite group of skill players I've ever seen assembled in college football," Smart said. "They've got a bunch of wideouts who are really good, and they've got some toys they can do things with. They've got the tight end, and they've got really good backs. We've got to play a really good football game, and our kids are excited for this opportunity."

Said Baker: "They've got the most talented wide receiver corps in the nation, but I feel like we've got the best DB corps in the nation. We'll just match up and see how it goes."

This article is written by David Paschall from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.