The Game to Watch
Georgia vs LSU (3 CT/CBS) – If the Rose Bowl is the “granddaddy” of all postseason exhibitions, the SEC Championship lays claim to a similar mantle as the preeminent conference title game in college football. Since its inception in 1992, the SEC’s postseason championship has created quite the annual spectacle and drawn national attention on the first weekend in December to a contest that started out as a regional game projected to be a colossal failure during its infancy.
With the conference producing nine national champions during the 19-year era of the title game (and a tenth almost certainly on the way this year,) it’s safe to say the kids in the SEC are still doing alright.
This year, though, the game has been regarded largely as an afterthought because of the perception that it’s meaningless – stripped of its luster by the combination of a bizarre series of events over the past four weeks on fields across the country and BCS computers calculating the end game before final matters on the field have been settled. Make no mistake – no matter what the final BCS rankings reveal – the SEC title game has been and will continue to be meaningful, particularly for whichever team raises a trophy and stands on a podium in Atlanta on Saturday night.
The apathy over this game has been fed by the BCS rankings, with an LSU/Alabama rematch in New Orleans seemingly a foregone conclusion regardless of what happens this weekend, but it’s also been driven by LSU’s dominance. Most folks just think they’re too good to lose to Georgia, and maybe they are, but this game stands to be close well into the second half for a few reasons: Georgia has one thing LSU doesn’t in Aaron Murray, and they may potentially be playing in front of a favorable crowd.
One thing is for certain. This game matters. It’s a championship settled exclusively by being the best team on the field over the course of the entire season in the best conference in America. Votes don’t matter. There won’t be an asterisk beside the winner’s name. There won’t be any second-guessing about the participants, and no computers will be taken into account. LSU will look to leave no doubt on its way to a coronation in its home state, and Georgia will play to punch a ticket to its own BCS destination.
Who owns the air? There’s a saying in the South: “If you want to fly to Heaven, you have to connect in Atlanta, first.” With a nod to Delta airlines, their planes and the thousands of people flying on them won’t be the only important thing distributed in the air on Saturday. Georgia has enjoyed success over the past several weeks by playing great defense and running the ball effectively. They do have one other weapon, though, that’s absent most teams in the conference – an above-average quarterback who can pass the ball as more than a “game manager.” It may actually be the only asset LSU doesn’t have.
Aaron Murray ranks 14th in the nation in passing efficiency, and he’s shown the ability to escape trouble with his legs when he needs to do so. Unlike Tyler Wilson of Arkansas, who was shut down by the Tiger defense last Friday, Murray can make plays on his own when things break down. His escapability may force LSU to be a bit more conservative with their blitz packages, and he may make them pay if they’re not. Despite sack losses, Murray has rushed for more than 100 yards this season and has scored 6 touchdowns on the ground during his brief career.
Murray will never be mistaken for a dual threat or option quarterback, but he’s elusive enough to avoid huge losses and in a close game, making one or two plays on his own could be the difference between a blowout loss and a monumental upset.
Jordan Jefferson unseated Jarrett Lee as the top quarterback for LSU during the second half of the Alabama game largely because of his ability to make plays in the run game, but Jefferson almost certainly will have to hit a few big plays in the air if the Tigers are to build a comfortable margin as expected. LSU and Georgia rank second and third, respectively, in rushing defense in the league, so it’s unlikely that either of these teams will be able to dominate the other exclusively on the ground.
Georgia and LSU rank tops in the SEC in passing efficiency by a fairly wide margin from the rest of the pack, as well. They’re also best in the league at sacking the opposing quarterback – LSU has registered 33 sacks in 2011 with Georgia right behind at 32. Not surprisingly, they’re also both among the nation’s best in pass efficiency defense.
Jordan Jefferson will make some breaks on his own, but the key matchup to watch in this game is Aaron Murray versus the LSU secondary. With playmakers all over the field, LSU has margin for error in that it may be able to win the game without Jefferson having a career night. Murray may have to put up his best performance yet of the season, though, for Georgia to have any chance at all. He’s a difference-maker and is a better weapon in the air than Jefferson, and he needs to play like it.
Which team capitalizes on the intangibles? It should be interesting to see the crowd inside the Dome this weekend. Georgia’s fan base has been starved for any type of relevance of the better part of three years, and with the game being played down the road in its home state, you can bet Bulldog fans will be out in droves. LSU travels well, but with an appearance in the BCS Championship Game in January seemingly inevitable, you have to wonder just how motivated the team (and its fans) may be.
Both teams rank at the head of the conference in turnover margin and time of possession, and both have the confidence that comes after two-plus months of nothing but winning. LSU has played a far better schedule and has been put in far more precarious positions during its run to perfection. From trailing 14-0 a week ago to then-No. 3 Arkansas to rallying back for an overtime win in the latest “Game of the Century” in Tuscaloosa to the season-opening domination of Oregon in Dallas, LSU has bested all comers by playing with the unbreakable swagger embodied by its quirky head coach.
Georgia’s run has been impressive, but you have to wonder if there’s any steak to go along with the sizzle of their 10-2 record. An argument could be made that they lost to the only two teams on their schedule who could or should legitimately beat them. (Georgia Tech is the only possible exception. Don’t mention a .500 Florida team – don’t even go there.)
The key to hanging with LSU is weathering the momentum shifts that will eventually come. Everyone on LSU’s schedule, save Alabama, has melted down when things began to go south, and even the Tide ultimately succumbed to LSU’s battery of emotion and efficiency. With athletes swarming from every position, the Tigers don’t win a war of attrition. They launch an all-out assault. They punch you in the face and build a tidal wave of pressure that, so far, has obliterated every team who’s experienced it.
Georgia will fight. Mark Richt will have his team ready to play. Can Georgia hit big plays and force LSU to make critical mistakes early enough and often enough to build a lead that allows its running game and rush defense to take the air out of the ball?
Arkansas won the first 20 minutes against the Tigers, but it wasn’t able to avoid mistakes of its own and the lead turned into a deficit in mere minutes. LSU proved more in that game than that it was simply able to dominate a great team. It showed that it’s offense is good enough to dig out of a hole.
Don’t be surprised if we see a reprisal of that scenario this weekend. Georgia could easily jump out to a quick lead in front of a frenzied crowd. Can they maintain it and withstand LSU’s enumeration of superstars? Ultimately, the answer is probably not. They’ve not been challenged by anyone on LSU’s level this season, and none of their opponents since South Carolina have even come close.
At this point, we know LSU is built to battle for 60 minutes, and if necessary, even longer than that. The same can’t be said of the Bulldogs.
OKTC Prediction: LSU 31, Georgia 20
Season Prediction Record: 61-13
Season ATS: 37-34-3