Red & Black, Purple & Geauxld

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SEC Championship Game Preview:

Georgia @ LSU (LSU leads the all-time series 15-12-1)

Saturday, December 3rd – 4pm, CBS Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson, and Tracy Wolfson

The Georgia Dome (72,000) – Hotlanta, GA

The Matchup: #14 Georgia Bulldogs (10-2, 7-1 SEC) vs. #1 LSU Tigers (12-0, 8-0 SEC)

SEC Championship History: The Dawgs and the Bayou Bengals have met in Atlanta twice before to battle for the league crown. In 2003, Nick Saban’s Tigers came into the Georgia Dome hoping for a chance to play for a national title. On a team that featured future NFL star Joseph Addai, it was Justin Vincent who stole the show. Rushing for 201 yards on 18 carries on his way to scoring two touchdowns, Vincent paced the Tigers on their way to a 34-13 victory. On the defensive side of the ball, LSU baffled Georgia quarterback David Greene who completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions; the Tigers suffocating defense also held the Bulldogs to only 50 yards rushing on in the contest.

Just two years later, Mark Richt and the Bulldogs would get their shot at redemption. This time led by Les Miles, the Tigers had no answer for Georgia, who jumped all over LSU in the first quarter 14-0 and never let up. Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley threw for two scores and ran for another, and the Dawgs’ defense knocked future number one overall pick JaMarcus Russell out of the ballgame in the third quarter as Georgia rolled to a 34-14 victory.

The Skinny: If the pundits had it their way, the SEC would have canceled this game following LSU’s victory over Arkansas last weekend and awarded the title to the Tigers. It seems no one out there is giving the Bulldogs a chance against the mighty Bayou Bengals. Lucky for those of us who love the parody that runs rampant in college football, the game is still on!
Contrary to the picture painted by the talking heads, this is far from a David vs. Goliath scenario.

LSU comes in with one of the most impressive defenses in recent memory that is chock-full of players you will eventually see on Sundays. Their ground-based offense rotates four backs who could all probably start for any school in the SEC and they play with a physicality up front that all of their opponents absent Alabama could not match. Built in the mold of most championship teams, the Tigers are outstanding on both sides of the ball where it matters most – in the trenches. On both sides of the ball, they constantly punch you in the mouth for 60 minutes and grind their opponents down as the game progresses. The Tigers have outscored their opponents in the second half of games an eye-popping 229-61.
The boys in silver britches return to the Dome for the second time this season. The Dawgs opened their 2011 campaign in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, suffering a 35-21 defeat at the hands of perennial BCS buster Boise State. After another loss to rival South Carolina, Georgia won 10 straight games in their march back to Atlanta.

Steadied by the continuing development of quarterback Aaron Murray and galvanized by a defense led by star outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, the Dawgs are playing their best football of the season. In the past four games, Murray has thrown for 876 yards, 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Of Jarvis Jones’ 13.5 sacks this season, 12.5 have come in SEC play.

The Key Match-up: The obvious choice here would be Aaron Murray and Georgia’s offense against Tyrann Mathieu and LSU’s suffocating defense. What seems much more intriguing is the match-up between LSU’s ground-and-pound offense with their stellar offensive line and stable of tailbacks and Georgia’s 3-4 defense shepherded by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
In their second season in the 3-4 scheme, the Dawgs have evolved into something looking like Erk Russell’s fabled “Junkyard Dawgs.” Led by USC-transfer and Butkus Award Finalist Jarvis Jones, Todd Grantham’s defenses is among the SEC’s elite. The Dawgs are third in scoring defense (17.8 ppg) and rushing defense (94.8 ypg) behind only Alabama and LSU. Their rotating nose tackles Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins occupy space and clog the middle allowing Jones, Michael Gilliard, Alec Ogletree and Shaun Williams to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.

Outside of the singular talent in South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Georgia has not faced a rushing attack as physical and effective as the one employed by LSU. The Tigers ran the ball 529 times this season, amassing 2,590 yards and 32 touchdowns. Their 215.8 yards per game average was good enough for second in the SEC, falling only four yards short of Alabama. Michael Ford and Spencer Ware have carried the bulk of the load, rushing for 721 yards and 697 yards respectively. Alfred Blue (445 rushing yards) and Kenny Hilliard (248 yards) complete the Bayou Bengals’ stable of backs. In addition to sharing carries, this group has graciously shared their trips to paydirt. Ware leads the group with eight scores, followed by Ford with seven, while Blue and Hilliard have both accounted for six rushing touchdowns. Not to be left out of the rushing picture is quarterback Jordan Jefferson who has added 253 yards and three scores on the ground.
Georgia’s defense will face its most daunting challenge of the season this weekend. If they are able to keep the Tigers rushing attack at bay and force them to win the game through the air, things could get very interesting in the Georgia Dome Saturday afternoon.

The Wild Cards: The steadiness found in LSU’s backfield has been somewhat lacking in Athens this season. The seminal recruit in Georgia’s “Dream Team” recruiting class, Isaiah Crowell has been as special as advertised – that is, when he’s been on the field. In spite of two suspensions and a myriad of nagging injuries, Crowell leads the Dawgs in rushing with 832 yards. His fellow backfield mates have included Richard Samuel (240 yards) who has been injured since the Florida game, Carlton Thomas (333 yards) who has missed three games due to suspension, Brandon Harton (247 yards), and Ken “Boo” Malcome (86 yards) who actually quit the team at one point early in the season. Although they’ve done so unconventionally, Georgia finished the season ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 180.6 yards per game. The Bulldogs will need to establish the running game to keep LSU’s defense honest. Otherwise, Aaron Murray and the Georgia offensive line will be in for a long afternoon as the Tigers’ will be free to pin their ears back and bring the wood.

For the Tigers, the unknown variable is at the quarterback position. Although Jordan Jefferson is now firmly entrenched as the starter, neither he nor Jarrett Lee are prolific passers. Mostly due to their dominant running game, LSU attempted the least amount of passes in the SEC this season, throwing the ball only 249 times. The Tigers’ offense is built to run the ball, limit turnovers, and own the time of possession battle. Within that model, there are going to be situations throughout the game where they need to throw the ball to keep a drive going or to loosen up Georgia’s front seven. When those opportunities present themselves, Jefferson will need to be careful with the football. Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo leads the SEC in interceptions and Brandon Boykin is one of the best cover corners in the league. In their 10-game winning streak, Georgia has won the turnover battle in each contest. In order to win, LSU quarterbacks will need to protect the football at all costs.

The Projection: Everything points to LSU winning this ballgame. They’re 12-0. They’ve beaten Oregon at Jerry World, West Virginia in Morgantown, Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and they thumped Arkansas in the Battle for the Golden Boot. Their defense is full of future pro-bowlers and they have speed all over their roster. And they’ve got the Mad Hatter. Les Miles may be the best coach in the country and not only preparing his teams for the big stage, but also making gutsy moves at the most opportune times. The oddsmakers in the desert seem to think an LSU win is inevitable as well and have placed Georgia as 13-point underdogs. Although their schedule leaves something to be desired, UGA comes in winners of 10-straight games. They’re playing with confidence and they have game-changing talent in quarterback Aaron Murray and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Murray’s ability to spread the ball to six different receivers and Jones’ propensity for making tackles in the backfield keep it close, but LSU is too much in the end. Take the Dawgs against the spread, but LSU straight up.

Final Score: LSU 24- UGA 21