I didn't feel inspired to write anything yesterday, and today is not so easy either. Part of me says, "Let's just watch the game and forget about analyzing it to death before the fact." These are two teams who are not poised for glory, at least not yet, but they can see it from where they stand. They can see the obstacles in their way as well.
Georgia's obstacles are a suspect defense and a decided lack of ball control. Joe Cox, who has been productive as a quarterback with 9 touchdown passes, leads the SEC with 5 interceptions. They have also lost 7 fumbles, to give them 12 turnovers in 4 games, the most in the SEC. Meanwhile, they aren't generating turnovers, giving them a turnover margin of -9 on the season, again worst in the SEC. Their defense is giving up an average of 243 yards per game in the air, though that average is inflated by having given up 408 yards to Arkansas. They held Oklahoma State and Arizona State to reasonable passing yards against.
LSU's obstacles are an offense that isn't firing on all cylinders because the blocking is not there, and an inability to get sacks on the quarterback. We are last in the league in total offense, though we are mid-pack where it really counts in scoring offense. We are last in the league in sacks. Rahim Alem, who has been surprisingly good in my opinion on containing the run, has not been getting to the quarterback the way he should, and we aren't getting enough pressure from the middle. We aren't giving the quarterback all day to throw, but we aren't getting him to the ground enough either.
Yes, both of these teams have weaknesses that, if not corrected, will prevent them from being there at the end of the season. If we don't figure out how to improve our offensive line play, and if Georgia does not figure out how to play more consistently on defense and cut down the turnovers on offense, neither one of these teams will be there when the SEC Championship Game combatants are announced.
But let me be clear. Neither of these teams are bad. Both sit at 2-0 in the conference, and while Georgia needed last-second heroics from Rennie Curran to escape against South Carolina, they got the heroics they needed. While LSU needed last-second heroics from Chad Jones and Ryan Baker to escape against Mississippi State, they got the heroics. They both escaped what would have been very damaging losses and lived to fight another day. Tomorrow is that "other day".
For now, these two flawed teams, neither of whom are in the weight class of the best in the conference (yet), will be playing each other. It is an interesting proving ground for both teams. Two flawed teams, one of whom will stay undefeated in the conference and the other of whom will finally be "exposed" as a pretender.
I choose "exposed" deliberately, and put it in quotes deliberately as well. This is what media members will say after the game, but it is not a completely appropriate description. Both of these teams have been exposed already. Washington and Mississippi State revealed major weaknesses in LSU. South Carolina and Arkansas exposed Georgia. Mediocre play by one team or the other, or both, would not be a big surprise at this point.
Because this is an interdivisional game, it is not a must-win game for either team standings-wise. Both teams will control their own destinies in the divisions they represent regardless of whether they win or lose. However, I think this is an important game for both of these teams beyond its impact in the standings. Both of these teams are beleaguered by fans and media pressing on them, trying to explain or understand why they are not as good as they should be. I believe that whoever loses this game will be damaged by it psychologically and it could lead to a spiraling season.
In parallel, both of these coaches have come under fire. Mark Richt for always coming close to national championship level but not ever quite bringing his team there, and for starting the season slowly this year. Les Miles for a poor 2008 and an anxiety-producing start to the 2009 season. Les Miles, I think, can silence the critics for a while with a win here. I am not so sure Mark Richt can. This is a cross-roads game not only for the teams involved, but for the coaches. They are on somewhat parallel trajectories right now, but one of them is going to break off.
The more I think about this game, the less like a big college football game it feels. It feels more like a fight for survival. Like a loser's bracket game in a double-elimination tournament between two teams that both believe they should be in the winner's bracket. One of these teams gets to continue on and the other is going home. Not literally of course, because the season continues for both teams, with plenty goals still to reach, but I can't shake the feeling that this game marks the end of something. If LSU wins, it marks the end of Georgia as a serious contender in the East, perhaps for more than just this year. If Georgia wins, it may do the same to LSU.
So yeah, those are your happy thoughts for Friday morning.