ATLANTA — Next stop, New Orleans.
No. 1 LSU added the Southeastern Conference championship to its growing list of historic accomplishments as it overcame its worst first half of the season to whip No. 12 Georgia, 42-10, on Saturday in the Georgia Dome.
The Tigers, 13-0 and 9-0 in the SEC for the first time in school history, won their school-record eighth victory against a ranked opponent.
LSU, which became the last unbeaten team in the Football Bowl Subdivision when No. 7 Houston lost to Southern Mississippi earlier Saturday, will officially be headed to the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 9 when the BCS bowl pairings are released Sunday night.
The Tigers have been No. 1 in the Associated Press poll since Sept. 25, No. 1 in each of the BCS rankings, and have a perfect 1.000 ranking. They have outscored their opponents by an average of 38-10 and only Alabama took them to the wire before succumbing, 9-6, in overtime on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Tigers had the second-biggest margin of victory in an SEC title game. Auburn beat South Carolina, 56-17, last season.
“I think this team obviously has just been dominant week in and week out,” LSU offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. We’re not done yet, but we control our own destiny. We’ve worked our way into that game in New Orleans, which is what we were hoping for, so now we just have to finish strong.”
The Tigers finished strong after a slow start for the second consecutive week. They had said all week they would be totally focused on winning their third SEC title in nine seasons, despite rampant speculation that they had built up such a big lead in the BCS rankings that they would play in the national title game even if they lost to Georgia (10-3, 7-2). But for much of the first half they looked like a team that knew it had a cushion to play with.
They failed to gain a first down in the first half, fell behind 10-0, and trailed at the half for the first time this season (10-7). But just like they did a week earlier when they outscored then-No. 3 Arkansas, 41-3, after an early 14-0 deficit, the Tigers steamrolled past their opponent once they got in gear.
“When we came in at halftime down, you could see it in everybody’s eyes that we were going to win without a doubt,” linebacker Ryan Baker said. “We came in with that swagger.”
For the second consecutive week, Tyrann Mathieu had a punt return for a touchdown that helped turn the game in LSU’s favor.
Last week, it was a 92-yard return that tied the score at 14, and Saturday it was a 62-yard return that got the Tigers within three at the half as he made an 11th-hour statement for reconsideration as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Voting for that award ends Monday.
“Obviously, we got off to a slow start, so I just felt that I needed to change the momentum of the game,” Mathieu said. “It was the perfect time with that punt return.”
Mathieu also recovered a fumble that set up the go-ahead touchdown. Last week, he forced two fumbles and recovered one. He had fumble returns for touchdowns against Oregon and Kentucky among his four touchdowns that comprise half of the Tigers’ total of non-offensive touchdowns.
“There’s something about him that he seems to find a way to do something special just about every game,” Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said, “and he did it again.”
Mathieu was the third defensive player to be named Most Valuable Player in the 20 years of the SEC title game. The defense shut out Georgia during the final three quarters and still has not allowed more than one touchdown to an SEC opponent this season.
“The way that defense is playing,” Tigers coach Les Miles said, “when (Georgia) had 10, I thought that that would be it, and we needed just frankly to get it started.”
They did, as they usually do with the running game, especially late. LSU gained 202 of its 207 rushing yards in the second half.
Alfred Blue ran for 94 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, and Kenny Hilliard ran for 72 yards and two touchdown on eight carries. Hilliard also caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Jefferson, who completed just 5-of-13 passes for 30 yards.
“We just knew that eventually (Jefferson) would manage the game well, that we’d hit the passes enough that it would keep them honest,” Miles said. “And then his ability to move his feet and run certainly some of the plays off the option allowed us to want to keep him.”
The Tigers made it clear at the start of the third quarter that the second half would be much different than the first.
On the third play from scrimmage in the period, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray tried to escape the pass rush and was hit by end Barkevious Mingo and tackle Michael Brockers, who knocked the ball loose. Mathieu recovered at the Bulldogs’ 26.
After Georgia was penalized 5 yards for illegal substitution, Jefferson passed 6 yards to Rueben Randle for LSU’s first first down of the game. Then Hilliard ran 15 yards for a touchdown that gave LSU a 14-10 lead and seemed to stagger the Bulldogs.
They went three-and-out on their next possession and punted to Mathieu, who broke tackles, danced around and between defenders on a 46-yard highlight run to the Bulldogs’ 17.
Michael Ford ran for 6 yards before Hilliard ran 7, then 4 for a touchdown and a 21-10 lead. Hilliard’s 8-yard touchdown reception from Jefferson pushed the edge to 28-10 as LSU completed a 21-0 third-quarter blitz.
The Tigers added a couple of exclamation points in the fourth quarter as Blue raced 48 yards for a touchdown and Morris Claiborne intercepted Murray and ran 45 yards for a touchdown.
“When you’re down like that you can’t panic,” Jefferson said. “That’s what a great team does. You don’t panic. We had to find our momentum. We had to find ways to keep drives alive.”
The Georgia crowd was rocking from the opening kickoff and the Bulldogs gave them reason to get louder. LSU received the opening kickoff and had to punt after losing three yards in three plays.
Georgia showed it was going to be aggressive when it threw deep on its second play from scrimmage. Tigers cornerback Morris Claiborne slipped down, allowing Tavarres King to slip past him for a 44-yard pass completion to the LSU 21.
Three plays later on third-and-11, Murray put the ball into King’s hands in the end zone, but King couldn’t hold on. Blair Walsh’s 40-yard field goal gave the Bulldogs a 3-0 lead.
Field position caught up with LSU after it started drives at its 15, 28, and 8 and failed to make one first down, eventually leading to Georgia started its fourth possession at the Tigers’ 44 after a punt.
A 16-yard run by Carlton Thomas, and an 11-yard completion from Murray to Charles, put the Bulldogs in position for Murray’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Aron White.
That gave Georgia a 10-0 lead after the first quarter, which was LSU’s worst quarter of the season.
The Tigers managed to flip the field position as Brad Wing launched punts of 56 and 67 yards (the third-longest and longest punts in SEC Championship Game history).
After Sam Montgomery sacked Murray for an 11-yard loss to the Bulldogs’ 3, Mathieu fielded Drew Butler’s punt at the LSU and zig-zagged 62 yards to a touchdown that brought the Tigers within 10-7 and brought them and their fans to life.
In the end, the only undefeated team in the country needed to play just one half the way it has played virtually all season to claim the championship of the most competitive conference in college football.
“We’re going to go home and celebrate a little bit, but I think guys are going to get their mind set that we still have unfinished business,” Baker said. “That’s how we’re going to approach this. I can tell by the feeling in the room that guys are ready to get back to work. We’ve got one ring. We’re searching for more.”