The Georgia Bulldogs and LSU Tigers square off in the 31st SEC Football Championship Game this Saturday in Atlanta. The SEC title game is usually a high-stakes meeting with College Football Playoff implications, and while this year's matchup won't lack intrigue, the Tigers and Bulldogs arrive in Atlanta with different goals in mind. Georgia is a win away from a perfect 13-0 regular season and the top spot in the playoff. On the other side, LSU aims to play spoiler and finish the year on a high note. The Tigers were knocked out of playoff contention after last week's loss to Texas A&M, but an SEC title would be a significant way for first-year coach Brian Kelly to end his debut in Baton Rouge.
Although Saturday's game is about finishing the 2022 season on the right note for Georgia, there's also a feeling of unfinished business. The Bulldogs entered the SEC Championship Game last year in a familiar spot (12-0 and No. 1), only to lose to Alabama 41-24. The defending national champions have been inconsistent at times, but coach Kirby Smart's squad has met the moment when the competition was at its highest. The Bulldogs dominated Oregon 49-3 in the season opener, defeated South Carolina 48-7 two weeks later, and beat Tennessee 27-13 en route to a perfect 12-0 mark. Regardless of what happens in the SEC title game, Smart's program will enter the playoff as the favorite to win it all.
Steady improvement throughout Kelly's first year was a reasonable goal for the Tigers in '22. But playing for the SEC title? Outside of the most optimistic LSU fans, it's probably an idea not many expected to come to fruition. The Tigers lost 24-23 to Florida State in the season opener but reeled off four wins in a row, including a 31-16 victory over Mississippi State. A 40-13 loss to Tennessee was a setback in mid-October. However, Kelly's team rebounded by reeling off consecutive wins against Florida and Ole Miss before stunning Alabama in overtime in Tuscaloosa to gain control of the SEC West. A 13-10 victory at Arkansas sealed the division title for LSU on Nov. 12. Although last week's loss to Texas A&M was a disappointment, the Tigers have come a long way in Kelly's first year.
LSU holds an 18-13-1 series edge over Georgia. The Tigers have won four out of the last five, including a 37-10 victory in the 2019 SEC Championship Game. LSU is 3-0 in the SEC title game against Georgia.
SEC Football Championship Game: No. 14 LSU vs. No. 1 Georgia
When LSU Has the Ball
For LSU to win on Saturday, it needs a huge game from quarterback Jayden Daniels. The Arizona State transfer has carried the Tigers offensively this season, ranking fifth in the SEC in total offense (282.5 ypg). Daniels has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 2,566 yards and 15 touchdowns and two picks and added 824 yards and 11 scores on the ground. The junior suffered an ankle injury in last week's loss at Texas A&M but is expected to start on Saturday. How close to 100 percent is he though?
Daniels' presence in the lineup is crucial since Georgia has a big advantage at the line of scrimmage. Led by lineman Jalen Carter, the Bulldogs have suffocated opponents up front, recording 68 tackles for a loss and 22 sacks. This unit doesn't necessarily have monster statistical numbers in terms of negative plays, but the front can create challenges and consistently generate pressure for an LSU front that's allowed 41 sacks (the second most of any team in the SEC this year). With the Tigers likely to struggle in one-on-one blocking in the trenches, the mobility of Daniels is a huge asset. The junior can help the offense get out of negative plays by escaping the rush or getting to the edge on rollouts for easy completions.
No opponent has passed for more than 271 yards against Georgia's defense this year, but the Tigers have weapons on the outside to challenge this secondary. Malik Nabers (58 catches), Kayshon Boutte (42), Jaray Jenkins (24), and Brian Thomas (25) headline the options at receiver for Daniels. Also, tight end Mason Taylor (27) is a valuable outlet.
Similar to the other 12 teams that played Georgia so far this year, it's hard to envision LSU finding much running room on Saturday. The Bulldogs are giving up just 2.97 yards per rushing attempt, and no opponent has posted more than 140 yards on the ground in a game. Each of Georgia's last four opponents failed to get to 95 yards. Running back Josh Williams (481 yards) has missed the last two games due to injury but is likely to return on Saturday. Williams, Noah Cain, and John Emery Jr. will find running room limited, but this trio needs to churn out yardage to help alleviate the pressure on Daniels' right arm.
It's no secret this is a tough matchup for LSU. Georgia's defense has limited opponents to 11.3 points a game and 4.5 yards per play this year. The Tigers need a healthy (and big-time performance) out of Daniels to have any shot at the upset.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Georgia's defense rightfully garners most of the national attention, but the 'Dawgs also possess one of the best offenses in college football. Coordinator Todd Monken has guided this group to an average of 38.3 points a game and 6.95 yards per play this fall. And in the biggest stages this season, Georgia has responded with its best production. Against ranked opponents, the Bulldogs average 7.6 yards per snap.
Although hitting big plays isn't Georgia's specialty this year, the offense's efficiency is a major strength. The Bulldogs convert 51.4 percent of their third-down attempts and rank No. 5 nationally in offensive success rate. Staying on schedule behind quarterback Stetson Bennett (3,151 yards and 16 touchdowns) this fall, and the ground game (203 rushing yards a contest) helps Monken's group overcome the hit-or-miss big-play ability.
Finding ways to get Georgia out of its comfort zone and forced to execute in long-yardage situations is the top priority for LSU's defense. Under the direction of first-year coordinator Matt House, this unit continued to improve throughout the season and has allowed just 21.5 points a game. The Tigers rank sixth in the SEC against the run and seventh in pass efficiency defense while limiting teams to 5.4 yards a play. But in order to get the Bulldogs into those long-yardage situations or create negative plays, edge rushers Harold Perkins Jr. (11 TFLs) and B.J. Ojulari (seven) will be asked to generate havoc all afternoon. Georgia's offensive line has been excellent all year (just seven sacks allowed), so Perkins and Ojulari will have their work cut out for them on Saturday.
When Bennett throws, it's no secret tight end Brock Bowers (46 catches) is his go-to target. Ladd McConkey (46), Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (24), Kearis Jackson (18), and tight end Darnell Washington (25) round out the list of top contributors in the passing attack. LSU's secondary has to find a way to slow down Bowers and force some of the other weapons in Georgia's passing arsenal to beat them.
Kenny McIntosh (654 yards), Daijun Edwards (604), and Kendall Milton (420) headline a deep backfield for Monken, and all three options are likely to see time on Saturday.
A complete shutdown of Georgia's offense seems unlikely for LSU. But is there a path to slowing down the Bulldogs? The most likely approach seems to be making Georgia replicate its efficient drives, try to create a takeaway or two, and let Ojulari and Perkins create havoc up front.
Just three of the last 10 SEC Championship Games have been decided by one score, and judging by the spread and how these two teams have played this year, another one-sided affair is likely in order. LSU needs a lot to go in its favor to pull off the upset. Offensively, Daniels has to carry this team on the ground and through the air, with a couple of big plays mixed in. On defense, LSU has to create turnovers and generate negative plays to get Georgia's efficient offense behind the sticks. Although Kelly has exceeded all expectations in his first season in Baton Rouge, this is a tough assignment for the Tigers. The Bulldogs are simply the best team in college football. LSU keeps it close in the first half, but Georgia pulls away in the final two quarters for a dominant win and brings the SEC title back to Athens.
Prediction: Georgia 34, LSU 17
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