NCAA Football: Georgia at Louisiana State

LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws against the Georgia Bulldogs during a 2018 game at Tiger Stadium.

Kirby Smart knows the challenge awaiting his defense Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is massive.

The first question the Georgia football coach fielded in his Sunday press conference was about that task — how to slow down quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the high-powered LSU offense in the SEC Championship Game.

“Where do you want me to start? I’ve only got 30 minutes,” Smart said. “So it’s all over. I mean, the running back is the best. He’s one of the most powerful, explosive. He does an unbelievable job. He was really good against us last year, but he has been a really good player. It all starts with the quarterback. Their offensive line protects really well, and they’ve got probably the best group of wideouts, size, speed-wise that you could ever imagine. When you start with the (strengths of the) offense, you can start with any location you want.”

Burrow, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, draws most of the headlines for the Tigers. He has completed 314 of 410 passes, an astonishing 78.3 completion percentage, for 4,366 yards and 44 touchdowns to just six interceptions.

He spreads the ball around to a variety of receivers — five have more than 30 catches — but his top targets are Ja’Marr Chase (70 catches, 1,457 yards, 17 TDs) and Justin Jefferson (81 catches, 1,092 yards, 13 TDs).

Edwards-Helaire has rushed for 1,233 yards and 16 TDs, but his importance to the offense goes beyond running the ball. He has 43 catches, including three games with seven or more. Those include big games against SEC West rivals Auburn (seven catches, 51 yards) and Alabama (nine catches, 77 yards).

Those playmakers and a wide-open LSU offense make the job difficult for Georgia’s defensive coaches this weekend.

“It’s very unique, very different,” Smart said of the LSU offense. “And I think the players in it, we’ve played a lot of teams that have strengths and weaknesses, and you try to exploit those. But when you look across the board at this group, there’s not a lot there weakness-wise. I mean, they really play physical, and people don’t give them credit for that.

“They play really physical, and their back, their offensive line, their receivers are extremely physical, but they have a really great ability to throw the ball quickly and get it out and throw the ball vertically down the field.”

The good news for Smart — his Bulldogs have the SEC’s top scoring defense, allowing just 10.4 points per game. Opponents get barely more than 70 yards rushing per game against Georgia, and that total also easily leads the conference. The unit is fourth-best against the pass (186 yards per game) and that group will be tested mightily by Burrow.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron compared the Georgia defense favorably to Auburn, which limited his team to a season-low point total by far in a narrow, 23-20 victory in Baton Rouge.

“Kirby’s done a phenomenal job,” Orgeron said. “This is the best defense we faced all year. They’ll pressure. They’ll play man. They’ll play zone. I think it’s overall comprehensive with the pass rush that they have and their abilities to cover one-on-one. I think that’s what makes it outstanding. … I think a similar defense, the best defense we’ve played so far is Auburn, and just some of the little bit I watched, they’re very similar. A little bit different in a couple of spots, but very similar.”

The stakes are high for both teams, though LSU likely will be in the College Football Playoff semifinals regardless of the outcome. Meanwhile, Georgia needs a win to guarantee its spot in the top four vying for the national title.

“I think an opportunity in the SEC Championship excites you,” Smart said. “It really doesn’t matter to me where we’re ranked defensively, offensively, special teams. That part, I know that everybody will make a big deal about those two things, and they’ve got tremendous offensive explosions this year and a tremendous offensive unit, a lot of respect for them, but that doesn’t make the game any bigger. It’s as big as it can be anyway.”

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