Tigers make strong BCS case by dominating Bulldogs
Posted: Sunday December 7, 2003 2:47AM; Updated: Sunday December 7, 2003 2:50AM
ATLANTA (AP) -- LSU had to go on the road to win the Southeastern Conference championship.
Maybe the Tigers will get to stay at home to play for the national title.
No. 3 LSU made an emphatic case to play in the Sugar Bowl, routing fifth-ranked Georgia 34-13 Saturday night for the Tigers' second SEC title in three years.
The Bulldogs were playing just an hour's drive from their campus, cheered on by a crowd that appeared to be three-fourths red and black. At the end, most of the Georgia fans were gone.
The gold-and-purple contingent hung around, chanting "Sugar Bowl! Sugar Bowl! Sugar Bowl!" The national title is supposed to be decided in New Orleans -- about an hour's drive from LSU's Baton Rouge campus -- on Jan 4.
"I'd like to see us have the opportunity to play for a national championship," coach Nick Saban said. "I think our team deserves that. We've taken care of the business we could take care of."
The Tigers (12-1) might just get a chance to win it all after a wild day that no one could have predicted.
No. 1 Oklahoma, the dominant team in the country all season, was routed by Kansas State 35-7 in the Big 12 championship game. No. 2 Southern Cal rolled to a 52-28 victory over Oregon State to finish the regular season.
Now, a BCS nightmare: three teams with one loss, only two spots available in the Sugar Bowl.
"If we had not lost that one game, we wouldn't have the problem we have right now," Saban said. "We believe in the system and we will live with the system. It's probably not a perfect system. Until we have a playoff, which I've never been in favor of, we'll probably never know who the best teams are."
LSU did all it could, beating Georgia (10-3) for the second time this season. This one was much easier than the first meeting, a 17-10 thriller in Baton Rouge that wasn't decided until Matt Mauck's 34-yard touchdown pass to Skyler Green with 1:22 remaining.
The tone was set when freshman Justin Vincent took a routine-looking handoff and didn't stop running until he had an 87-yard touchdown run just 10 minutes into the game.
If the Georgia players had a vote, there's no doubt who they would support.
"They came in here and beat us pretty handily," Bulldogs safety Sean Jones said, "and we're not a slouch or anything."
Vincent was the MVP, setting a championship game record with 201 yards rushing. He also had a 62-yard run -- breaking two tackles, faking out two other defenders -- and finished off the Bulldogs with a 3-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
LSU built a 17-0 lead about 5 1/2 minutes into the second quarter. At that point, the Tigers had 196 yards, Georgia minus-8.
LSU finished with 293 yards rushing and outgained the Bulldogs 444-249.
"We just wanted to go out there and dominate," Vincent said.
While the freshman stood out, just about everyone contributed. Matt Mauck, the surprise MVP of LSU's victory in the 2001 championship game, threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Michael Clayton.
Lionel Turner tipped a pass to himself and returned the interception 18 yards for the Tigers' sixth defensive touchdown of the season. LSU also had a safety, tackling Georgia punter Gordon Ely-Kelso in the end zone after he bobbled a snap.
The kicking game provided the only troubling moments for LSU. Chris Jackson had two kicks blocked and missed an extra point. He was replaced by Ryan Gaudet, who was perfect the rest of the way on two field goals and two conversions.
Georgia was denied its second straight SEC title and likely will have to settle for a spot in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, or maybe even a return to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl on Jan. 2.
"Right now, nobody knows where anybody is going," said Bulldogs quarterback David Greene. "Obviously, we feel like we're a better team than we showed out there."
Greene, who had gone three games without throwing an interception, had an awful night against the fearsome LSU defense, the stingiest in the country in points allowed. The Georgia quarterback was picked off three times, sacked five times and finished just 17-of-41 for 199 yards.
"It's the No. 1 defense in the country, and right now we're not the No. 1 offense," Greene said.
He didn't have much help. Georgia managed only 50 yards rushing and dropped several passes.
Billy Bennett kicked field goals of 51 and 49 yards, setting an SEC record with 29 this season. He tried to fire up his teammates and certainly stirred up the LSU crowd by warming up after halftime while the Tigers' band was still on the field.
It didn't help.
The Bulldogs' most exciting moment came on a broken play. Reggie Brown was hemmed up in the backfield trying to pull off a double-reverse, turned the other way and wound up getting 35 yards.
A facemask penalty tacked on another 15 yards, and Georgia finally reached the end zone on Greene's 18-yard pass to Ben Watson. That brought the Bulldogs to 24-13 in the third quarter, but LSU snuffed out any thoughts of a comeback.
"There's not much to say," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We just got whipped."
Mauck completed an 18-yard pass to Clayton, then hooked up with Devery Henderson on a 33-yard pass play to the Georgia 5. Two plays later, after the teams traded ends, Vincent trotted in for the clinching TD.
LSU won the SEC title in 2001 with an upset of Tennessee, denying the Vols from playing for the national title. The Tigers, for at least another day, are still alive.
"I really don't know how this helps us or hurts us," Saban said. "I really don't understand all the formulas, how the points are divvied up, who gets what for what.
"We only controlled what we could control."