With all the talk of a rematch that's gone over the last month, all the discussion of whether LSU and Alabama should renew their rivalry for the second time in a season to decide the national champion, it's become easy to forget that LSU still has one more game to play before it's even sewn up the SEC championship. And we shouldn't forget, because there are no formalities in the SEC.
At least there aren't many. You can take a quarter or two off against Ole Miss, maybe, or even a dreadful team like this year's Kentucky. But you can't take a break when the team opposite you is one of the five in the conference that won 10 games this year.
In fact, the view of this game as a formality comes from an instance where I think the conventional wisdom has gotten ahead of the reality on the field. Is the SEC West still light-years ahead of the SEC East this season? Top to bottom, yes. But this isn't the eastern division of Conference USA we're talking about here. Whether because of weak competition or relatively easy schedules or not, both Georgia and South Carolina were 10-win teams who played at least one BCS team out-of-conference and midmajors with a knack for pulling upsets (even if Georgia's was a far tougher out than South Carolina).
Which isn't to say that Georgia isn't or shouldn't be a huge underdog against LSU when the two meet Saturday in Atlanta; the Dawgs should. Anyone who has watched LSU easily dismiss essentially everyone on the schedule except the consensus No. 2 team in the country knows that Georgia is in for a game that it will be hard-pressed to win.
But Saturday is not a coronation, but a football game. And while coronations are decided ahead of time and carefully scripted, football games are not.
After all, if you want to talk about the predictability of football games -- Georgia is not really supposed to be here. Not after losing to Boise State in the Georgia Dome and then getting edged by South Carolina at home. By the time the final seconds had ticked off the clock in the Gamecocks' victory in Athens, the Georgia bandwagon was rapidly emptying out.
If Georgia fans despaired at that moment -- and some of them did -- it was not because the team had lost its first two games. Anyone looking at a start against a Boise State team that has entered the nation's elite and a South Carolina team that was at worst a co-front-runner with Georgia for the division title could see trouble there. But as the Mayor explained to me on a Team Speed Kills Now podcast around the same time, the issues came from how the losses were coming -- the seeming repetition of issues that had killed the Dawgs as they fell further and further short of smaller and smaller goals.
But a funny thing happened on the road to another South Carolina title: The Gamecocks gave up the mulligan that they won against Georgia. South Carolina's 16-13 upset against Auburn on the first Saturday in October suddenly made the division contest a race again. If Georgia could go undefeated and South Carolina lost a game at Arkansas in which the Gamecocks would almost certainly be underdogs, then the Dawgs would go to the SEC Championship Game.
Which is exactly how things ended up turning out. The issues turned around. Todd Grantham's defense cranked out numbers that would even impress Nick Saban: Top ten rankings in rushing defense, passing efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. Aaron Murray began to reach his potential, ending up among the Top 15 quarterbacks in the nation in terms of passing efficiency. The rushing offense, plagued by injuries and other forms of attrition, still managed to finish the regular season in the top third of the league.
So Georgia went on to do something that no other team in the conference did, except LSU: Win its last 10 games. Whatever you want to say about the schedule -- Georgia played all the teams that were on it -- or the margin of victory or the lackluster start, the Dawgs looked pretty good over the last two and a half months of the season. They looked like champions.
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LSU had looked like champions pretty much from the beginning of the season. In a battle of Top 10 teams to start the year, LSU fell behind Oregon 13-9 before scoring 24 straight points to zoom past the Ducks. It was a pattern that would continue all year.
Time after time -- against Mississippi State, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and even Western Kentucky -- LSU found itself in competitive games (margin of 14 or less) going into halftime. Only in the Mississippi State game did the Bayou Bengals win by less than 24 points. The 9-6 overtime win against Alabama remains the only time this season any team has lost to LSU by less than two scores.
Along the way, Les Miles became the first coach in 53 years and only the second in the modern history of the program with an undefeated, untied regular season. And the Tigers did so pretty much the way you would expect them to: With a stifling defense second only to Alabama in total yardage allowed, a running game that was one of the best in the nation and second in the conference (again to Alabama), and a coach that seemed to have grown more mature without losing the ability to gamble when the situation called for it.
Consider that LSU scored more points per game than any other team in the conference -- and yet had just one player rank in the top 50 in the nation in any offensive category: Reuben Randle, who came in at 50th exactly with a shade over 74 receiving yards a game. The top turnover margin in the nation also helped -- but when it's aided by a large number of interceptions, which are more based on skill than fumble recoveries, and the ability to hold onto the ball yourself (the Bengals turned it over just eight times all season, tied for tops in the nation), the turnover margin is less a sign of how lucky you are and more a sign of just how good your defense is.
Or, in LSU's case, your entire team. Expect this game to follow the same pattern that all of the Bayou Bengals' other wins have followed, perhaps more so. Georgia is a very good football team, and they should keep it competitive at least until the half and maybe into the third quarter. But LSU will pull away. They have all season, and the Tigers have yet to give us any reason to believe that this game will be any different.
LSU 35, Georgia 17