Well, Bulldawg Nation, you’re right where you wanted to be before the 2019 football season kicked off … in the SEC Championship Game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a third consecutive year.
And your Bulldogs are exactly where the preseason pollsters predicted them to be, champions of the SEC Eastern Division once again and needing a victory in Saturday’s title game to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff for the second time in the last three years.
So Kirby Smart’s fourth Georgia edition has the opportunity to get to where all Bulldog fans expected their team to be this season; namely, one of the four playoff teams with a bona-fide shot at the coveted national championship … a prize that has eluded the UGA football program since a freshman tailback led the Bulldogs to the 1980 title.
So the stage is set for the University of Georgia to accomplish big things Saturday night in the ATL. But what’s different about this championship game, it’s not the Alabama Crimson Tide the Bulldogs are encountering — like they did two years ago in the national championship game in this same venue and like Georgia did last December in this same SEC championship game.
No, it’s not Nick Saban’s team, which made huge comebacks in both of those meetings to deal the Bulldogs gut-wrenching defeats and was picked in the preseason to face Georgia once again in the conference title matchup.
Rather, it’s the LSU Tigers who are awaiting the Bulldogs on Saturday in Mercedes-Benz. It’s the powerful, high-scoring LSU Tigers of Ed Orgeron who are standing in the way of Georgia and its national title aspirations.
And, without question, this game will be a showcase of the irresistible force going against the immovable object. That’s because the LSU offense has put up record numbers this season en route to the Tigers’ 12-0 record. Led by likely Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, LSU has averaged 48.7 points per game (2nd in nation behind Ohio State), scoring over 60 points twice this fall while soaring over 50 points in four of their other wins.
Burrow, the 6-4, 216-pound senior out of Athens, Ohio and an Ohio State transfer to LSU, has become the SEC’s all-time single-season passerby throwing for an eye-popping 4,366 yards — bypassing former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch (4,275 in 1998) — and 44 touchdown passes. But this explosive offensive unit doesn’t end with Burrow … not at all! He throws to a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in sophomore Ja’Marr Chase (1,457 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 11 games) and junior Justin Jefferson (1,092 and 13 TDs). And then there’s powerful and quick LSU tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the 5-8, 209-pound junior out of Baton Rouge has rushed for 1,233 yards and 16 touchdowns this season while also being an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
The Tigers have been pushed only in four games this season. They survived a 43-38 shootout in their second outing at Texas, pulled away from Florida in Baton Rouge for a 42-28 win after the game was tied 21-21 at halftime and LSU led by 35-28 at the end of the third quarter, had their closest scare when they edged Auburn 23-20 at Tiger Stadium and then, of course, won the wild shootout at Alabama with a 46-41 takedown of the Tide.
Now, as LSU attempts to lock up its first SEC crown since 2011, can the Tigers put up those kind of offensive numbers against the best defense — at least on paper — it has faced this season? These 11-1 Bulldogs lead the Southeastern Conference in every defensive category and are second in the nation in scoring defense (allowing just 10.4 points per game) behind Clemson and also No. 2 nationally in rushing defense (giving up 71 yards per outing), behind Utah. Georgia ranks 4th in total defense.
But good as this Georgia defense of coordinator Dan Lanning is, it can’t win Saturday’s game by itself. The Bulldogs’ offensive unit, which has played sporadically at times this season, simply has to control the ball to an extent against a Tiger defense that has given up 22 points per game this season and has allowed the opposition to chalk up point totals of 38, 38, 28, 20, 41, 37 and 20 in seven of its games. Compare those figures to those of the Georgia defense, which hasn’t allowed any offense to score more than 17 points this season while ringing up three shutouts.
Yes, I realize the Bulldogs will be without Jake Fromm’s favorite target Lawrence Cager once again and also will be minus now leading receiver, freshman George Pickens, in the first half Saturday after the latter was ejected for throwing punches in the blowout of Georgia Tech last weekend. But, still, Fromm will have to shake off his passing inconsistency of the past four games and get the ball to the Bulldogs’ other capable wideouts for big gains and touchdowns. And it goes without saying, D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien, Zamir White and James Cook will need to repeatedly pound the LSU defensive front for big runs which, of course, means Georgia’s huge O-line clearing the way to make that happen.
The Bulldog offense simply can’t go a bunch of three-and-outs and keep the UGA defense on the field much of the night … like was the case when Georgia struggled to protect a 21-0 lead against Auburn. Indeed, Fromm and company must go on long drives, work the clock and score touchdowns, which would equate to keeping Burrow and the Tiger offense watching from the sideline an ample portion of this game.
After LSU likely played its most complete game of the season last Saturday night in a 50-7 smashing of Texas A&M — yes, the same Aggie team that the Bulldogs defeated just 19-13 — I didn’t see any way I was going to be able to pick Georgia to win this SEC championship game.
But as I continued to study those LSU scores this season and reflected on the sizable amount of points the Tiger defense has yielded — admittedly some of those scores by the opposition transpiring after LSU had put the game out of reach — I’ve got to think the highly-motivated Bulldogs can get to 30 points on the Mercedes-Benz scoreboard. And with the Georgia defense again putting up an inspired effort and somehow holding Burrow, Edwards-Helaire and the Tigers to less than that number, I’m saying the Bulldogs will be celebrating between 8 and 9 p.m. Saturday evening.
Make it Dawgs 31, Bayou Bengals 28 with Rodrigo Blankenship’s winning field goal sending the Red and Black surging into the CFP.