Game of the Week: LSU, Georgia face off for SEC championship
LSU will play for the national title regardless, but the Tigers want to go undefeated
Georgia must rely on Aaron Murray, not its running game, if it hopes to pull upset
LSU has proven capable of staying on its game even when faced with adversity
Heading into the season, Georgia seemed better positioned to reach the SEC title game than LSU, which had suspended its starting quarterback and faced a slate that included road trips to Alabama and Mississippi State and daunting nonconference meetings with Oregon and West Virginia. After LSU whipped Oregon and Boise State handled Georgia in Week 1, however, expectations flipped.
Now here we are, with No. 1 LSU undefeated and bound for the national title game after surviving its trip to Tuscaloosa and No. 12 Georgia on a 10-game win streak. The SEC title game has served as a stepping stone to a BCS title the last five years, and it appears likely to be again with LSU a heavy favorite to remain undefeated. The last time the SEC title game did not produce the national champ? In 2005, when No. 3 LSU was upset by Georgia. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. at the Georgia Dome on CBS.
1. Catch a Tiger by the toe ... and two or three more will come: LSU's depth on both sides of the ball has been well-documented, but the greatest impact is at running back, where four players are equally likely to get the ball and take over the game. Spencer Ware led LSU in rushing in five of its first seven games before getting suspended for one game against Auburn. Since then, Alfred Blue has been the leading rusher twice, Michael Ford once and freshman Kenny Hilliard once with 102 yards and a touchdown last week against Arkansas. The foursome is fresh, powerful, athletic and almost equally dangerous. "Everybody's got first, second, third string, you know," Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week, "But if your second and third team aren't that good, you're not going to play them much. But these guys at LSU, they're all playing. And they're all playing for a good reason." LSU has run the ball 68 percent of the time this season, so Georgia knows what's coming. The Bulldogs' run defense ranks sixth nationally but gave up 253 yards to South Carolina, 243 to Georgia Tech and 199 to Vanderbilt. For Georgia to sniff the upset, it must contain LSU's stable of running backs and avoid wearing down against fresh legs in the second half.
2. Take your shots, Mr. Murray: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray talked this week about quarterbacks being judged on championships, and this is the sophomore's first chance at one. Should Georgia add another SEC championship to its trophy case, it is going to have to be on the shoulders of Murray. Stud running back Isaiah Crowell looks like he's healthy enough to play, but you don't beat LSU by running the ball (just ask Nick Saban). Murray will have to challenge the speedy LSU secondary and continue to avoid interceptions (four in his last seven games). Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, the only SEC quarterback with more passing yards than Murray this season, was 14-for-22 for 207 yards with one touchdown and one interception against the Tigers. Murray will have to be better.
3. Just how motivated are the Tigers? Les Miles tried to put a stop to any "the SEC title game doesn't matter" talk immediately after LSU finished off Arkansas last week, but the BCS chatter will not be silenced. The belief is that LSU's résumé is good enough to earn the Tigers a spot in the national championship game even with a loss to Georgia, rendering Saturday's tilt in Atlanta the equivalent of a conference basketball tourney final prior to the NCAA tournament: nice to win, but not necessarily vital. "We won the SEC West, and now it is our job to win the SEC," said defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. "Whatever happens after that will happen." Miles has been steadfast in his emphasis on Saturday's game, and the lure of a perfect season -- something LSU hasn't posted since 1958 -- provides plenty of incentive. In fact, with a BCS title berth virtually assured, it may take the pressure off LSU should things go wrong early and allow the Tigers to play more relaxed.
LSU enters the game as a 13.5-point favorite. LSU is 9-3 against the spread this season and 7-1 in its last eight against teams with winning records. During its 10-game win streak (all as the favorite), Georgia has covered eight times. Georgia is 0-4 the last two seasons against the spread as an underdog, losing both times this season (Boise State, South Carolina).
Twelve of the last 13 SEC championship games have been decided by 10 points or more, with LSU's 21-14 win over Tennessee in 2007 being the lone exception.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup. Earlier this season, Pauline profiled LSU defensive end Lavar Edwards and linebacker Karnell Hatcher; corner Morris Claiborne and receiver Rueben Randle; and safety Brandon Taylor.
OLB Jarvis Jones, Georgia: The USC transfer has lit it up during his first season with the Bulldogs and has scouts believing he's one of the best 3-4 outside linebacker prospects in the nation. Jones has proven to be a dynamic pass-rusher who harasses opponents for four quarters. The red-shirt sophomore will be an early pick if he opts for next April's draft. Grade: First- or second-round prospect.
OL Cordy Glenn, Georgia: Glenn bypassed the 2011 draft for a chance to display his skills at left tackle this season. It's been a bumpy ride, as his play protecting the blind side has been inconsistent. Scouts still believe Glenn has the makings of a dominant guard in the NFL based on his play the prior two seasons. Grade: Second-round prospect.
QB Jordan Jefferson, LSU: Jefferson has been on a tear recently and NFL scouts are taking notice. He's an athletic college player who possesses an NFL arm yet is still rough around the edges. With the recent success of ultra-athletic signal-callers, it's likely a team takes a chance on Jefferson in the draft with the hopes of developing him for the future. Grade: Fifth-round prospect.
LB Ryan Baker, LSU: The senior linebacker lacks the classic measurables NFL scouts desire for a linebacker, yet his intangibles are infectious. Baker offers the versatility to be slotted as a backup in a variety of defensive schemes. Scouts also feel Baker will be an exceptional special teams player. Grade: Seventh-round prospect.
Georgia is eager to show it belongs in this game. On paper, the Bulldogs do carry some impressive numbers: a 10-game winning streak, the nation's fifth-ranked defense and the SEC's No. 1 quarterback in pass efficiency. "I think our defense is as good as theirs, if not better," Georgia linebacker Jones said this week. (Think that quote made it to Baton Rouge?) LSU, however, seems to have an endless array of weapons, from a dominant and deep defensive line, to a ball-hawking and athletic secondary, to a relentless running game. And as the Tigers showed against Arkansas, they're not easily thrown off their game, even if they face adversity early. Georgia has the talent to make some big plays and keep the LSU offense in check for a while, but ultimately LSU will stretch it out in the second half. LSU 34, GEORGIA 20
(Note: This column is attempting to match last season's 9-5 record by finally picking LSU after predicting Tiger losses to Oregon and Alabama.)