Last weekend provided the much-anticipated return of Southeastern Conference football.
This Saturday, the league will showcase it first top-10 pairing of the season when No. 7 Auburn visits No. 4 Georgia, and within that clash could be one of the premier position showdowns the conference produces all year. The Tigers will travel with the versatile receiving trio of senior Eli Stove and juniors Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams, while the Bulldogs will counter with a proven secondary headed by senior safety Richard LeCounte and junior cornerbacks Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes.
The respect for one another and the eagerness to compete inside Sanford Stadium is audible from each camp.
"Georgia is one of the best teams in the country and one of the best secondaries in the country, so we'll have to step up," Schwartz said. "We're not scared of any secondary, but we know Georgia is going to come right at us, and we've got to answer right back."
Said Campbell: "The SEC is full of great receiver corps, and Auburn is one of those teams. As a secondary, we're going to accept the challenge, and we like these challenges. We're up for it."
Auburn's receivers were the difference in last Saturday's 29-13 win over Kentucky, which had the experience edge up front on both sides of the ball. Stove, Schwartz and Williams combined on 13 receptions for 207 yards and three touchdowns, with Williams inflicting the most damage with six catches for 112 yards and two scores.
Stove and Schwartz — the 2018 Gatorade national boys' track and field athlete of the year — provide the speed for sophomore quarterback Bo Nix, veteran coach Gus Malzahn and first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris, while the 6-foot-3, 211-pound Williams is often a physical mismatch for opponents.
"Those guys seem like they've been playing there forever," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "Seth is one of the best there is. Stove has been there forever, and we know how fast Schwartz is. They've got a lot of good wideouts."
The Bulldogs opened with a 37-10 win at Arkansas that was headline-grabbing due to the struggles of starting quarterback D'Wan Mathis and the switch to Stetson Bennett early in the second quarter. That overshadowed LeCounte's two interceptions at the expense of Razorbacks quarterback Feleipe Franks and a 30-yard interception return for a score by Stokes at the 2:53 mark of the third quarter that put the game away at 27-10.
Georgia's secondary was no match for LSU last December in the SEC championship game, but the Bulldogs did lead the nation last season in fewest points allowed (12.6 per game) and fewest yards per completion (9.88). Yards per completion was a factor in Georgia's 21-14 win at Jordan-Hare Stadium last November as Schwartz, Stove and Williams combined on 23 receptions for 189 yards, which translated to 8.2 yards per catch.
Schwartz never got loose, totaling 48 receiving yards and averaging 6.9 a catch.
"They've got really good players, and they're really well coached, so it's a combination of that," Malzahn said. "They do a good job of mixing things up, but they also do a good job of keeping things in front of them. It's tough to get explosive plays on them, and that will be a key this week.
"We're going to have to have explosive plays in the passing game to be able to score points."
Another interesting aspect of the matchup of Auburn's receivers and Georgia's defensive backs is that Schwartz and Campbell were classmates and teammates at American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida. That meant they competed on occasion at football practice and in track meets.
"When we're out on the field for those 60 minutes, we're just playing ball," Schwartz said. "After those 60 minutes, we're back to being friends, but during those 60 minutes on the field, I've got nothing for him. I'm going to do my best, and he's going to do his best.
"We just know we have to turn it up. They're going to be coming for us, but they've got to be ready for us, too."