With all due respect to the BCS National Championship Game, first No. 1 LSU and No. 12 Georgia have some pretty important stuff to settle Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome.
It’s the 20th Southeastern Conference Championship Game, pitting the West Division champion Tigers against the East Division champion Bulldogs.
“There’s no other championship game like this,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “This is the big one.”
It’s big for LSU, because the Tigers can wrap up a berth in the BCS title game with a victory, though they may be headed there regardless of Saturday’s outcome. It’s big for the Bulldogs, because a victory would send them to a New Orleans a week before the BCS title game to play in the Sugar Bowl.
“I really can’t explain it to the people who live outside of the South,” said LSU guard Will Blackwell, a senior from Monroe. “It’s just a regional thing.
“If you grow up down here and you follow football long enough, you learn to love the conference and you understand that the best competition is within this conference. Obviously, this year, it shows with us having three teams in the top 10. It’s bragging rights.”
LSU began the season in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas, and thumped preseason No. 3 Oregon 40-27 announcing themselves as a national championship contender.
They steamrolled to the No. 1 spot in late September, took over the West lead with a 9-6 overtime victory Nov. 5 at Alabama and wrapped up the West with a 41-17 victory against Arkansas last Friday.
“This team loves playing in big-time games,” Tigers defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “We have been through a lot this season. We’ve played a lot of tough games, a lot of tough opponents. I think it’s prepared us to play this game.”
Georgia faced an uphill climb to get back to Atlanta. While the Tigers were plucking the Ducks in Dallas, the Bulldogs were getting humbled by Boise State 35-21 in the Georgia Dome. A week later, Georgia was falling behind in the SEC East Division race by losing to South Carolina 45-42 in Athens.
“I think we were a team that certainly needed to improve throughout the year,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I think we have improved. I don’t know to what level that we’re at right now, but we’re a lot better than we started the year.”
The Bulldogs have won 10 consecutive games, and the Tigers have the longest winning streak in the country (13 games).
LSU has won its games by an average of four touchdowns, and only the Alabama game has gone to the wire.
“They tend to wear people out by the end of the game,” Richt said. “So once the resistance has been broken down a little bit - their goal is to break the spirit of whoever they play. They’ve been successful most of the time.”
The Tigers have trailed for a total of less than 30 minutes this season.
“We’re a team that’s not going to worry too much if we get down,” Murray said. “We’ve been down this whole season, and people have been doubting us.”
LSU’s defense has been one of the best in the country all season, not allowing more than one offensive touchdown to any of its eight previous SEC opponents. Georgia’s defense has grown into one of the best in the country during its 10-game winning streak, allowing just 12 touchdowns.
Murray leads the SEC is passing efficiency and utilizes a bevy of receivers.
“He really acts like a veteran as a redshirt sophomore,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “He makes great decisions. The guy that can move the ball around to as many receivers as he gets it to you have to have the ability to play coverage and certainly play coverage with the ability to get some pressure on that quarterback without necessarily calling extra guys in the rush.”
Jordan Jefferson has become entrenched as the Tigers starting quarterback after being suspended for the first four games and relieving Jarrett Lee in the next five before starting the last three. He’s coming off his best passing performance, having completed 18 of 29 for 208 yards and a touchdown.
Both teams are balanced offensively. The Bulldogs lean on freshman running back Isaiah Crowell, who’s expected to play despite an ankle injury, and LSU rotates sophomores Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue, along with freshman Kenny Hilliard.
Georgia last won the SEC title in 2005, when it beat the Tigers, and LSU last won it in 2007, when it beat Tennessee.
“This is an opportunity for us to add another banner to our school, which adds to the tradition,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “I see it as a great opportunity for the university, a great opportunity for our team to have a shot at the SEC championship. Not too many teams go to the SEC championship and not too many teams can finish, so I look at it as a privilege and an honor to be able to play in this game and compete for it.”
An even bigger honor likely awaits in January but, LSU safety Brandon Taylor said, “it wouldn’t feel as great going to the national championship if you don’t win the SEC championship.”