(Eds: With AP Photos.)By PAUL NEWBERRYAP Sports Writer
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - The Georgia Bulldogs' defense is finally showing some bite.
Then again, that might say more about the quality of the opposition the past two weeks.
The 25th-ranked Bulldogs (6-3, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) will get a much better reading on how much they've improved - if any - when they face one of the country's most dynamic offenses on Saturday.
Georgia will be at No. 7 Auburn (9-1, 5-1), hitting the road to face a team that's averaging nearly 500 yards and 40 points a game.
The Bulldogs have struggled much of the season to stop opponents, not surprising given they lost seven defensive players in the NFL draft. Even so, improvement was slower than expected until wins over Florida and Appalachian State.
Some players still wonder just how much progress has been made.
''Let's see exactly how I want to word this,'' said defensive end Ray Drew, pausing to gather his thoughts when faced with that question.
Finally, he said, ''I do feel that we've gotten better. But this weekend will tell a lot because they are a little bit stronger opponent offensively than what we've seen the past few weeks. This will be telltale game.''
Replacing such defensive stalwarts as Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, the Bulldogs struggled mightily over the first seven games. Two teams put more than 40 points on Georgia. Four others scored at least 30.
After starting the year ranked in the top five, the Bulldogs fell out of the poll completely with a 4-3 record.
They looked better in a 23-20 victory over Florida, but the Gators haven't been scoring much on anybody this season. Georgia romped past Appalachian State 45-6, but that was expected against an overmatched team making the transition to the top division.
Garrison Smith is the only senior starter for a defense that features three freshmen on the top line of the depth chart - end Leonard Floyd, cornerback Shaq Wiggins and free safety Quincy Mauger. Two other true freshmen also have gotten starts in the secondary.
Maybe it should've have been a surprise when they got lit up by teams such as Clemson, LSU and Missouri.
''You've got to expect that when you're playing a whole lot of freshmen who have never played before,'' Smith said. ''They want to make every tackle, they want to make every play, they want to get on the highlight reel. But then they cause other mistakes, other problems, because they're not where they're supposed to be. It's just growing pains.''
They better stick to their assignments against Nick Marshall and the Tigers, who have looked nearly unstoppable while putting up 320 yards per game on the ground.
Auburn's offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, said he's definitely picked up some improvements in Georgia's defense.
''They were young this year, but you can tell that now they're nine games in, they're getting healthy, too, overall, so they're aggressive,'' he said. ''They create some matchup problems and some unique things that are maybe different from what we've seen the last couple of weeks, but nothing we haven't seen before. They do a good job and they put good athletes on the field. I think the defense we're going to face on Saturday might be one of the better defenses, if not the best, that we've faced this year. And I really believe that.''
If nothing else, it's a defense that will surely benefit down the road from getting knocked around a bit.
Smith said he's excited to see how it all turns out, even though he's only got a few more college games to go.
''This experience,'' he said, ''will definitely help this team in the future. I'm one of the only people who's leaving the defense. They're definitely going to learn from their mistakes this year and move on. They'll understand how important it is to be disciplined. They're going to be a very good defense.''
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