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Stingy Georgia secondary a 'challenge'


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Stingy Georgia secondary a 'challenge' for Auburn's downfield passing attack


Auburn has been one of the nation's most productive downfield passing teams this season, but the Tigers could have a hard time stretching the field against top-ranked Georgia.

When Auburn (7-2, 5-1 SEC) hosts Georgia (9-0, 6-0) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the 121st edition of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, the Tigers' downfield passing attack will be tasked with going up against the nation's No. 7 passing defense -- and one of the stingiest secondaries in terms of limiting big plays.

"You just have to figure out ways to do it," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "You have to figure out a way to make explosive plays on these guys. That's the challenge."

Auburn has been one of the most explosive passing teams in the nation this year, ranking sixth in FBS with nine pass plays of at least 50 yards. The Tigers also have 14 passes of at least 40 yards, which ranks seventh in the country, and 18 passes of 30 or more yards (17th).

It has been one of Auburn's biggest areas of improvement on offense this season after struggling to stretch the field each of the last two years with a combination of Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III at quarterback. That has largely been due to quarterback Jarrett Stidham, whose big arm and efficiency in the downfield passing game has paid dividends for Auburn and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.

That raises concerns for Georgia and coach Kirby Smart, who compared the Tigers' downfield ability to that of Auburn's 2014 passing attack with Nick Marshall, who threw 14 passes of 40 yards or longer.

"There's similarities, for sure," Smart said. "... They have a vertical passing game. They've always had a vertical passing game, but it's just a matter of having the right guy to throw it to them. They have that guy now, and they do a great job of it."

While Auburn has enjoyed success knocking the top off of coverages, Georgia has managed to limit those types of plays this season. The Bulldogs have allowed just seven passes of at least 30 yards, which is tied for fifth nationally, three longer than 40 yards (tied for 12th) and just two of 50-plus yards (tied for 25th).

To contrast, Auburn has two receivers with multiple 50-yard receptions in Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis, while Will Hastings has several catches of at least 40 yards, and Nate Craig-Myers has a 57-yard touchdown as well. Since-dismissed receiver Kyle Davis also had a pair of catches of 50-plus yards this season.

"They have more speed at wideout this year than they have in the past, and I think they actually get to use it because of the quarterback and his strengths," Smart said.

Whether Auburn will be able to put that on display against Georgia remains to be seen. Malzahn said the challenge in throwing deep against the Bulldogs lies in the fact that their defense can effectively stop the run while still playing two safeties deep. The key, he said, will be finding balance offensively -- an objective for Auburn each week, but something that has amplified importance against a more talented defense like Georgia's.

"I think (the key is) just executing, just everybody doing their job," Slayton said. "I think as long as we continue to work and get open, and the O-line protects Jarrett, he's always going to make good decisions. I feel like as long as everybody does their job, we'll be fine."

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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