ATHENS, Ga. — Studying Auburn's offense has been an annual task for Georgia second-year football coach Kirby Smart.
Smart is discovering a different look to Gus Malzahn's Tigers this season, largely due to transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
"They have a quarterback with an extremely strong arm who does a tremendous job of throwing the ball vertically," Smart said Monday. "They've got more speed at wideout this year than they've had in the past. I think they get to use it because of the quarterback and his strengths.
"The combination of that with their offensive line is really a recipe for what Gus has been wanting to do."
Auburn has been run-dominated in Malzahn's five seasons, with his 2013 Southeastern Conference champions averaging an eye-popping 328.4 rushing yards per game and 173 passing yards a contest. This year's Tigers do not possess the same rushing arsenal as their 2013 predecessors but enter Saturday afternoon's contest against the visiting Bulldogs with a balanced average of 236.7 rushing and 229.4 passing yards.
The game between Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEC) and Auburn (7-2, 5-1) marks the first top-10 showdown of SEC teams this season.
Stidham is coming off a 20-of-27, 248-yard, three-touchdown showing in last Saturday's 42-27 win at Texas A&M, with Darius Slayton's two receptions going for 53 and 46 yards and with Ryan Davis snagging a 35-yard catch and Eli Stove a 29-yarder. He has completed 147 of 220 passes for 1,996 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions this season, and his 66.8-percent accuracy rate leads the SEC.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pounder from Stephenville, Texas, began his career at Baylor University in 2015 and sat out a year ago at McLennan (Texas) Community College.
"They're a great team with a good quarterback who can throw the ball," Bulldogs senior inside linebacker Reggie Carter said. "We need a coordinated pass rush. We need to disguise coverages. We need hits on the quarterback and batted balls. All that plays into affecting a quarterback, and it's everybody's job."
Said sophomore safety J.R. Reed: "Each week somebody is going to try and attack us, and we've got to limit the explosive plays and get some interceptions like we have been."
Stidham was sacked 11 times in Auburn's 14-6 loss at Clemson on Sept. 9, but he has been sacked only 13 times in the other eight games. Georgia's defense has 17 sacks this season, including seven the past two weeks against Florida and South Carolina.
"You've got to push the pocket, and you've got to be able to get off the field on third down," Bulldogs senior nose tackle John Atkins said. "We give them four seconds, and after four seconds it's on the rush. You want to get back there."
Georgia last year feasted on hobbled Auburn starter Sean White, who completed 6 of 20 passes for 27 yards in the 13-7 loss to the Bulldogs. The Tigers expect much bigger things from Stidham, who has guided Auburn to a record 261 points through its first six league contests.
Smart has experienced a downfield Auburn passing attack before, most notably as Alabama's defensive coordinator in the 2014 Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide won 55-44, but not before Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards and three touchdowns, with Sammie Coates totaling 206 receiving yards and Duke Williams 121.
"There are similarities for sure," Smart said. "Nick's ability to run the ball and their quarterback run game back then makes it a little bit different, but Jarrett is a good athlete, and he can run. They don't ask him to run as much, but he certainly can.
"They've always had a vertical passing game. It's just a matter of having the right guy to throw it to them. They've got that guy now."
Back in business
Bulldogs junior inside linebacker Natrez Patrick returns this week after sitting out a four-game suspension due to an arrest last month on marijuana possession.
"He is hungry," fellow linebacker Carter said. "He is ready to get back out there. I can only imagine."
Patrick has 17 tackles this season after totaling 59 last year.
Odds and ends
Georgia senior running back Nick Chubb needs 13 yards to move past Auburn's Bo Jackson (4,303, 1982-85) into fourth on the SEC's career rushing charts. ... The Bulldogs have won nine of their last last 11 meetings against Auburn to take a 57-55-8 lead in the Deep South's oldest college rivalry. ... This will be the fourth meeting in the series with both teams ranked in the top 10, the Tigers having won the first three (1971, 1983 and 2004). ... Georgia's home game next week against Kentucky will be televised by CBS at 3:30.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.