January 31, 2023

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LSU and Georgia Battle It Out For The SEC Championship

The LSU Tigers will play the Georgia Bulldogs for the fifth time in the SEC Championship Game. (Photo taken by Jason Saucier)

For the fifth time in SEC Championship game history, the LSU Tigers and the Georgia Bulldogs will battle for the SEC title crown in Atlanta making it the second most frequent SEC Championship matchup in history behind Alabama vs. Florida. History has gone towards the Tigers’ way as LSU holds a 3-1 advantage in the previous four matchups between the two SEC powerhouse teams.

YEARSCOREATTENDANCEMVP
2019LSU 37, Georgia 1074,150Joe Burrow, LSU
2011LSU 42, Georgia 1075,515Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
2005Georgia 34, LSU 1473,717D.J. Shockley, Georgia
2003LSU 34, Georgia 1374,913Justin Vincent, LSU

Despite what history may say, the Georgia Bulldogs will come in as heavy favorites coming off a national championship last season and also holding the current number one ranking in the College Football Playoff.

“Outstanding football team. There’s so many superlatives. This is a well-coached, consistent football team, but our guys have had the opportunity to play the best and this is another opportunity for us to be challenged. We’re excited about the opportunity.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly

It was no surprise that the Bulldogs would come in representing the Eastern Division, but what was a shock was the Western Division representative, which was the LSU Tigers led by first year head coach Brian Kelly.

In year one with only 39 scholarship players on the roster towards the end of last fall, what the former Notre Dame head coach has done is worthy of Coach of the Year honors leading the Bayou Bengals to a 9-3 overall record plus big wins against the likes of Alabama and Georgia over the course of the season.

While there have been some highs, there have also been some lows and that is why the Tigers come in as the heavy underdogs. There was the one point loss at the beginning of the season to Florida State, the blowout loss at home to Tennessee, and finally, the biggest low of the season was last week when the Tigers went on the road and lost to a below .500 Texas A&M team to end the regular season. What made the loss so devastating was that the Tigers controlled their own destiny to get into the College Football Playoff, but now, LSU will not get that opportunity.

“It was definitely upsetting to lose to A&M, but we’ve given ourselves a chance to play another game with how we’ve played all season. We’re happy that wasn’t our last game. We get another chance to correct those things and puts a good product on film.”

LSU Defensive Lineman Mekhi Wingo

However, LSU still has a chance to end the season on an incredible high note if they can find a way to upset Georgia, win the SEC Championship, and punch their ticket to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. Overall, despite the ups and downs, it has been a great first impression by Kelly and the program that he is trying to establish.

“It’s exciting to be able to play for a conference championship. We certainly feel like we’ve earned the opportunity to be here. We’re excited for the opportunity to represent the SEC West and play the number one team in the country.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly

The Georgia Bulldogs have accomplished a whole lot and have established themselves as a college football powerhouse winning a national championship, but the only thing that is left out of the program’s trophy case for this senior class.

“It gives us motivation to go out there and get the job done. We know what it takes. We’ve been in this position so we just got to make the most of it, go play our game, let the rest take care of itself.”

Georgia Wide Receiver Ladd McConkey

Despite making the College Football Playoff twice in 2017 and 2021, The Bulldogs’ last SEC Championship came back in 2017 when Georgia defeated Auburn 28-7 to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff. Since then, the Bulldogs have struggled in the conference championship game losing to Alabama 38-35 in 2018, LSU 37-10 in 2019, and Alabama again in 2021 41-24, which also happened to be the Bulldogs’ last loss to date.

“I mean it’s tough to win a SEC Championship. I’ve been part of this league for a long time. I have almost as many national championships as I do SEC Championships. They’re really hard to come by.”

Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart

Kirby Smart is also trying to notch his first win against the LSU as he is 0-2 against the Tigers losing to them in 2018 and also in the 2019 SEC Championship Game. Smart talks about going up against this LSU program and why this matchup has been frequent in the SEC Championship Game over the years.

“They go big, physical SEC players. Not that they didn’t when they were at Notre Dame. They’ve got really good skill players. They’ve got an extremely athletic quarterback. Do a tremendous job defensively. I got a lot of respect for their defensive staff and what they do, but they’re athletic. I mean LSU is never going to be short on players. The state, the area, high school football is so meaningful, and they do such a good job recruiting, that he’s got some really talented guys, really talented players playing.”

Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart

The LSU Tigers will try to become the first SEC team to win a SEC Championship with three losses since Nick Saban did it in his second year at LSU back in 2001. Although the Tigers are heavy underdogs and are coming off a very disappointing loss to Texas A&M that knocked LSU out of the playoff, it will not change how the Tigers prepare heading into this game.

“The distractions of social media do not help you in your preparation. So what we’ve tried to do is get them to think the right things about what’s important in their preparation. If you think that you get into the right emotional zone as an underdog, well that’s fine, but it’s still about your mental, your physical, your technical, and tactical preparation.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly

Even though Kelly is new playing in the SEC, he is not new when playing against Georgia as his Notre Dame teams played Kirby Smart’s teams twice before.

“I’d say there are more similarities on defense than they are on offense. I think there’s a little bit more wrinkles, if you will, on the offensive side of the ball.”

“Every defense is going to have a little bit of a change in personality, but they’re three down, four down, they’re going to mix it up on third down, their third down packages are difficult. The personnel is outstanding on the defensive side of the ball, as it is on offense.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly

The biggest headline coming into this game offensively for the LSU Tigers is the status of its dual threat quarterback Jayden Daniels, who went down with injury twice in the 38-23 loss to Texas A&M. Brian Kelly updated Daniels’ status earlier this week.

“He’s going to be good. He’s had a good week of practice. He’ll play for us on Saturday.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly

It is good news that LSU’s best offensive player will be good to go for Saturday, but the biggest question will be how effective he will be as he is dealing with an ankle injury. On the ground and through the air, Daniels has accounted for majority of the team’s offense. The Arizona State transfer is in the top ten in SEC in passing and rushing. Daniels has completed 238 of 347 passes for 2,566 yards and 15 touchdowns to only two interceptions. He has been dynamic on the ground too with 824 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart spoke about what makes Daniels so tough to defend.

“He’s extremely athletic. He’s got a great arm, great release. He’s got a lot of talented players around him. I remember watching him play, knew he was going to be a great player. They’ve invested in him. You talk about significantly improving from game one to now, he is unbelievably improved. They’ve done a great job with him.”

Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart
LSU QB Jayden Daniels (Photo taken by Jason Saucier)

The Tigers have a staple of running backs that will be sharing the rock led by former walk-on Josh Williams, who is back after dealing with a knee injury last couple of weeks.

“My knee is doing better than it was last week. I started running more on the grass. The coaches wanted to hold me back, make sure they played it smart for this week so this week, I’m feeling better and progressing for this weekend.”

LSU RB Josh Williams
LSU RB Josh Williams (27) (Photo taken by Billy Metcalf)

Williams, Noah Cain, and John Emery Jr. have combined for 1,142 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. Through the air, Malik Nabers has established himself as Daniels’ main go to target with 58 catches for 726 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s been obviously very consistent for us. I think that relationship that Jayden has developed with him relative to the timing, getting the ball out of his hands before he gets out of the break, has really been. I think more than anything else, why third down has been so effective.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly on Malik Nabers
LSU WR Malik Nabers (8) (Photo taken by Jason Saucier)

Kayshon Boutte, Jaray Jenkins, Brian Thomas, and freshman tight end standout Mason Taylor have also made big plays throughout the year.

LSU freshman OT Will Campbell (66) (Photo taken by Jason Saucier)

What makes this year even more incredible has been the contribution of so many freshmen. Mason Taylor, offensive tackles Will Campbell and Emery Jones, and standout linebacker Harold Perkins have proven to be not only contributors, but four of the best players on the team.

“Mason Taylor’s got to have the ability to pick up the running schemes as well as all the passing schemes. The tight end position is not an easy position to play.”

“To put the physical with the mental at that position as a true freshman, we saw with Brock Bowers did it at Georgia, it’s quite unique. So just his ability to bring that every single day in his first year here I think is extraordinary for a young player.”

“Emery Jones coming in after camp and being inserted into the starting lineup. You’ve got to have a short memory at that position in this league. There’s such great pass rushers that you’re going to give up a sack or two. I think what I love about Emery is he forgets it and moves on to the next play. Each one of them has their unique traits.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly on play of freshmen on offense

Overall, the offense has averaged 32 points per game and has averaged 433 total yards of offense (241 passing, 191 rushing).

Arguably, the team’s best overall player is another freshman in Harold Perkins, who has 59 tackles, 10 TFLS, 6.5 sacks, and even had an interception this season. Recently, Perkins was named as a finalist for the Shaun Alexander Award Freshman Player of the Year Award.

Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart knows what kind of game wrecker #40 is for the Tigers and that the Bulldogs must know where he is at all times.

“He was probably one of the most talented linebackers coming out that season on tape. He’s extremely explosive, athletic. They do a very good job of utilizing his skillset.”

Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart

The Tigers have another impressive pass rusher too in BJ Ojulari, who is projected to be an early round draft pick. His older brother Azeez Ojulari was a standout player for the Georgia Bulldogs and is now playing for the New York Giants. Now, BJ will get the opportunity to play against the team that his brother was a star for.

“Yeah, we’ve been talking ever since we found out that we were going to be SEC West Champions. He’s been just giving a little banter here and there since he went to Georgia, but he’s all positive. He wants to see me succeed, but I know he’s going to be rooting for Georgia.”

LSU DE BJ Ojulari
LSU DE BJ Ojulari (18) (Photo taken by Jason Saucier)

Overall, the LSU defense has been very good over the course of the season giving up 21 points per game and only giving up 347 total yards per game under defensive coordinator Matt House. However, the Tigers are coming off their worst performance defensively of the season against Texas A&M and linebacker Micah Baskerville wants to end the year strong on that side of the football.

“Well, we do understand what we had slipped up with. Now it is what it is. It’s on to the next game. So really. we just want to finish the year strong. That’s our motto. We come to finish this last game or two, these last games or two, with a dub, and that’s our mentality.”

LSU LB Micah Baskerville

The defense has a huge challenge going up against the reigning national champion Georgia Bulldogs led by quarterback Stetson Bennett. Bennett, who is nicknamed the Mailman may go down as the greatest quarterback to ever play for the Bulldogs as he led Georgia last season to their first national championship since 1980. Over his career, the Mailman has delivered throwing for over 7,000 yards and 53 touchdowns while leading his team to a 24-3 record as a starter. Bennett’s story has been incredible in overcoming the odds as a former walk-on and now, he has a chance to end it with back to back national championships.

“He’s remarkable. He’s poised. The confidence on film in terms of what he exudes is amazing. He’s in full command of the offense, full command. That goes to his coaching, his teaching, his preparation obviously. It’s apparent in watching him how confident he is as the quarterback.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly on Stetson Bennett

Bennett will have plenty of options to throw the football too including the best tight end tandem in the country featuring one of the country’s best players in Brock Bowers and his counterpart Darnell Washington, who towers over Bowers at 6’7, 270 pounds. Bowers, who is an All-American for Georgia and a finalist for the Mackey Award, leads the team in receiving with 46 catches for 645 yards and five touchdowns. Washington has 403 yards receiving while Ladd McConkey leads all receivers with 606 receiving yards and a touchdown.

“Darnell Washington is a large person, 6’7″. I mean, there’s nobody that really had a favorable matchup against him.”

“Then Bowers, he leads the tam I believe in receptions. Coach Monken gets him involved in everything from handoff sweeps to I don’t know if he’s thrown the ball yet, but I’m sure he will. He’s just a versatile player. He’s a guy that can break games open. As talented and as productive as a tandem that you’ll see.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly on Georgia’s tight end room

Running the ball, the Bulldogs have a staple of running backs as Kenny McIntosh, Anthony Edwards, and Kendall Milton all have 400 or more rushing yards this season and have combined for 21 touchdowns on the ground.

The Bulldogs may have lost five defensive players that were drafted in the first round last season, but that side of the ball has shown that it is not rebuilding only allowing 11 points per game this season.

I asked LSU head coach Brian Kelly earlier this week about what makes the 2022 version of the Bulldogs defense so good and this was his response.

“First of all, the scheme is outstanding. They mix it up, three down and four down. They do a really good job when they get you into third down, they’re going to give you a variety of looks, but obviously, Robert Beal and Jalen Carter, outstanding D-linemen. I think Jamon Dumas-Johnson is a Butkus Award finalist, an outstanding player. The back end is young and athletic, really good ball skills.”

“Coach Scott obviously has his hand on everything that happens in this program, but in particular on defense. You can see that. I’m familiar with their defensive structure having gone against them a few times. They continue to get better each and every week.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly on Georgia’s defense

There is a big reason why the Georgia Bulldogs are the defending National Champions are the 12-0 undefeated current number one team in the country. It is a big challenge, but LSU head coach Brian Kelly believes that his team has earned the right to take on that challenge and to try and capture the program’s 13th SEC Championship.

It’s exciting to be able to play for a conference championship. We certainly feel like we’ve earned the opportunity to be here. We’re excited for the opportunity to represent the SEC West and play the number one team in the country.”

LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly on opportunity to play the #1 Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship




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