By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Win or lose on Saturday, LSU should already have a spot clinched in the national title game. So what’s there to play for? Only the coveted SEC title. Despite what the Tigers have to look forward to on Jan. 9, don’t expect any letdown on Saturday afternoon.
It’s been a wild ride for Georgia in 2011. Coach Mark Richt entered the year on the hot seat and things didn’t get better after an 0-2 start. The Bulldogs rebounded from their slow start, finishing the regular season with 10 consecutive victories and earning their first trip to Atlanta since 2005.
Georgia and LSU have met twice in the SEC title game, with each team winning once. The Tigers have lost three out of the last four overall meetings against the Bulldogs, but won in Athens 20-13 last season.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Quarterback Aaron Murray makes the Georgia offense go, but whether or not the Bulldogs can win on Saturday rests largely with the rushing attack.
Running back Isaiah Crowell did not play against Georgia Tech with an ankle injury, but is expected to return against LSU. The freshman has rushed for 832 yards and five scores this season, and his presence will be needed to establish balance.
Georgia’s offensive line will also have to step up, as it has allowed 25 sacks this season. The Tigers own one of the nation’s most relentless pass rushes, averaging 2.8 sacks per game.
If the Bulldogs can establish Crowell, it will help slow down LSU’s pass rush. Another factor that could help Georgia’s rushing attack is Murray’s mobility. He has 121 yards and two touchdowns on the ground this season, and he may need to make a few plays with his legs to keep the chains moving for the Bulldogs’ offense.
As if trying to slow down the LSU pass rush wasn’t enough, Murray and his receivers will have their hands full against its secondary. The Tigers have allowed only six passing scores this season, while quarterbacks are completing just 52.8 percent of their throws against this secondary.
Murray set Georgia’s single-season touchdown record with 32 this season and has tossed only 10 picks.
The Bulldogs have no shortage of talented receivers for Murray. Freshman Malcolm Mitchell leads the team with 582 receiving yards, while tight end Orson Charles ranks second with 530 yards. Tavarres King, Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Marlon Brown will also pitch in.
LSU got plenty of preparation for Georgia’s passing attack last week, as it held Arkansas’ quarterback Tyler Wilson to only 207 yards and one touchdown. However, the Bulldogs have a better rushing attack, which should help take some of the heat off of Murray.
When LSU Has the Ball
The Tigers certainly aren’t going to wow anyone with their offense, but it isn’t exactly easy for opposing defenses to stop.
While LSU’s offense may not seem like a big-play group, it is averaging 38.2 points a game, which ranks 13th nationally.
The success starts up front with an offensive line that has allowed only 12 sacks and has paved the way for players to average 4.9 yards per rush.
The Tigers’ rushing attack will be tested by a Georgia defense that is allowing only 94.8 yards per game. Michael Ford leads the team with 721 yards, but Spencer Ware (687), Alfred Blue (445), Kenny Hilliard (248) will also see time.
Quarterback play has been an interesting storyline for LSU this season. Jarrett Lee assumed the starting role after Jordan Jefferson was suspended before the season opener, but has played sparingly since the victory over Alabama. Jefferson has been solid over the last three weeks and has tossed only one interception on 70 attempts.
There’s no question LSU wants to establish its rushing attack and control the time of possession. However, Jefferson has to hit a few plays through the air to keep Georgia’s defense from crowding the box to stuff the run.
When Jefferson drops back to pass, keep an eye on linebacker Jarvis Jones. The sophomore leads the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss, and his presence will be critical in keeping Jefferson under wraps.
Georgia’s defense has recorded 29 takeaways this season and if it wants to have any chance at upset victory, winning the turnover battle is going to be critical aspect on Saturday.
Expect LSU's offensive gameplan to remain the same as it has been all year - establish the run and take a few shots downfield. The Bulldogs have to find a way to keep the Tigers' rushing attack in check and force Jefferson to beat them in third and long situations.
Give LSU the edge in this department.
Georgia kicker Blair Walsh has surprisingly struggled this season, connecting on 18 of 29 attempts. Walsh was regarded as one of the top kickers in the nation coming into 2011.
LSU’s Drew Alleman has hit on 16 of 18 attempts, including all three attempts between 40 and 49 yards.
Punter Drew Butler is having a solid year for the Bulldogs, averaging 43 yards per punt and has placed 16 inside of the 20. LSU's Brad Wing has been outstanding this year, matching Butler’s 43 yards per attempt, while placing 21 inside of the 20.
Georgia’s Brandon Boykin is averaging 23.6 yards per kick return and 9.8 yards on punt returns.
Morris Claiborne is having a terrific year on kickoff returns, averaging 27.5 yards on 15 attempts, while taking one back for a score.
Tyrann Mathieu is averaging 13.7 yards per punt return and took one back for a score in last week’s win against Arkansas.
Even though LSU has a spot in the national title game likely already under wraps, don’t expect a letdown.
Georgia will give the Tigers all they can handle, but it won’t be enough in the end. The Bulldogs have come a long way since the 0-2 start, but LSU is the better team and has navigated a more difficult schedule. Georgia will keep things close, but the Tigers pull away late in the fourth quarter.
Tigers 27, Bulldogs 17