Biletnikoff Award finalist Ja'Marr Chase is just one of several Tiger weapons Georgia's defense will have to try and slow down
Come Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the stage is all set for No. 2 LSU. The Tigers (12-0, 8-0 SEC) steamrolled through the 2019 season, taking down four top-10 teams to claim the SEC West crown and the right to play for the conference title. With a win over SEC East champ Georgia, LSU will punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff. Chances are the Tigers will still get in with a loss. Either way, the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (11-1, 7-1) are hoping that their tough regular-season schedule has prepared them to pull off the upset and make their case for a playoff spot. But these Dawgs have not seen anything like what the Tigers have in store for them in the conference's biggest game.
On the surface, Georgia's season has gone according to plan except for a puzzling 20-17 double-overtime loss at home to unranked South Carolina in Week 7. The Bulldogs finished the regular season with one of the best defenses in the nation, holding teams to 257 yards per game behind a second-ranked run defense that's giving up a measly 71 yards on the ground per contest.
The transition of James Coley from co-offensive coordinator to full-time duties has not gone as smoothly as planned on the other side of the ball. UGA has regressed on offense from 465 yards per game to 421 while producing five fewer points on average compared to 2018.
There is no secret to LSU's success in 2019, it is all about the offense. The Tigers have morphed from a middle-of-the-road attack, churning out 402 yards per game a year ago to a dominating force that overwhelms the opposition for 560 per contest. The early-season success throwing the ball has been aided more over the back half of the schedule by a running game that's averaging 188 yards over the last five games (compared to 170 for the season). LSU's defense heads into the Georgia showdown after turning in arguably its best performance of the season, clamping down on an opportunistic Texas A&M offense to the tune of 169 total yards (92 passing, 72 rushing) while collecting three interceptions and six sacks.
1. Georgia's lack of putting up points in big games
With a talented offensive line featuring left tackle Andrew Thomas, a returning 1,000-yard rusher in D'Andre Swift, and an All-SEC candidate under center in Jake Fromm, Georgia's offense has largely disappointed this season. The Bulldogs are averaging 33 points per game for the season, but in the three games played against ranked teams (Notre Dame, Florida, and Auburn) the unit has struggled to score, putting up 23 on average. Luckily the defense has been on its game to bail out the offense, giving up just 16 points per over those tightly contested affairs. In the loss to South Carolina, the Bulldogs managed just 17 points and they escaped College Station even though they scored just 19 against Texas A&M.
2. Georgia's walking wounded
All teams must face the inevitable with injuries, but the Bulldog players seeking extra treatment from the athletic trainers is a who's who in Athens. Not only will Georgia be without leading receiver George Pickens for the first half of the LSU game serving a suspension for a mix-up with Georgia Tech defender Tre Swilling, but No. 2 target Lawrence Cager (ankle) is out for the season. Head coach Kirby Smart expects 1,200-yard rusher Swift to be in the lineup on Saturday, but the All-SEC back suffered a shoulder injury in the third quarter of last week's game against the Yellow Jackets after posting 73 yards on 10 carries with two fumbles. The injury isn't considered serious, but the Bulldogs need a fully healthy Swift or their offense could be a bit hamstrung. There is some good news for UGA on the injury report. Defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt is expected to return after missing last week's game with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
3. LSU will score on anyone
Six times this season Georgia has been held to 24 points or less. Transversely, LSU has only been held to under 36 points once (vs. Auburn). In the four games played against top-10 teams, the Tigers have consistently done their thing, lighting up the board for 39 points on average. Statistically, the best offense Georgia has faced this season is Arkansas State, who hails from the Sun Belt. The top-rated in-conference challenge faced was Auburn, who ranks 53rd nationally in total offense at 421 yards per game. On paper, the Bulldogs' defense has eaten up the competition but those offenses don't necessarily pass the eye test. Look for Georgia's D to be exposed for the first time this season.
4. Tigers' offensive weapons
Georgia must not only scheme for Biletnikoff Award finalist Ja'Marr Chase, but there's also fellow 1,000-yard wideout Justin Jefferson. If that is not enough to change coverages and fronts, Terrace Marshall has emerged as a reliable target in the passing attack. Keeping defenses honest is standout junior tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Edwards has nearly doubled his production on the field from 2018, entering Saturday's game with 1,233 rushing yards and an SEC-leading 16 touchdowns on the ground. Over his last seven games, Edwards has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing plateau five times and has found the end zone 11 times during this same span.
5. Joe Burrow
Burrow has taken a Sharpie and re-written the LSU record book this season, as the senior quarterback has put himself in prime position to win the Heisman Trophy. He leads the SEC in passing yards (4,366) and touchdowns (44) while completing 78 percent of his attempts, even though he has faced three defenses that are ranked in the top 20 in FBS (Florida, Alabama, and Auburn). Comparing against common opponents, Georgia's Jake Fromm struggled against Auburn (13-of-28, 110 yds., 3 TDs) while Burrow went 32 of 42 for 321 yards and a score in the 23-20 win over the other Tigers. Against Texas A&M, Fromm was inconsistent again completing 11 of 23 attempts for 163 yards and a touchdown as the Bulldogs escaped with a 19-13 victory, while it was just another day at the office for Burrow, as he finished 23-of-32 for 352 yards and three scoring strikes in a 50-7 rout of the Aggies.
Since the expansion of the SEC in 1992, LSU has won outright or claimed a share of nine SEC West Division titles. In five SEC Championship Game appearances, the Tigers are 4-1. LSU enters this game more battle-tested, and against four common opponents (Vanderbilt, Florida, Auburn, and Texas A&M), the Tigers have won by an average margin of 45-23 compared to Georgia's 24-13. LSU has the offense and defense to bring home a fifth SEC title to add to the trophy case.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo courtesy of @LSUfootball)