The SEC Championship Game: What to Watch For

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Look who's back ...the man that put the ‘hot' in Hotlanta.


Life always has a way of showing you something new.

If somebody would have told me before this season that LSU would be heading to the SEC Championship Game, I would have been ecstatic, for obvious reasons. And if you would have followed that up with the news that it would have very little impact on who plays in the BCS Championship Game, I probably wouldn't have been terribly surprised -- after all, you have to figure sooner or later the SEC is going to get the raw deal in a battle of one-loss teams for the spot. But, if you told me, no, that an undefeated LSU team would likely clinch a spot in the championship game regardless of the outcome in Atlanta, I think I would have had a hard time believing that one.

And yet, here we are, facing what, very strangely, sorta feels like the first ever anti-climactic SEC Championship Game in history.

Of course, the idea is ludicrous. It's the freaking SEC Championship, and you can damn sure bet that it matters. To LSU fans, the Tigers themselves and certainly to a Georgia team that will enter the Georgia Dome playing entirely with house money. The rest is just background noise. Weird, Frank-Zappa-sounding background noise, but nonetheless trivial to the task at hand.

What to Watch For on Saturday

Day of the Dead

What, you thought I didn't have some other kind of meaning behind that picture? My writing has more depth than that. What? Stop laughing. Who are you, my sophomore-year high school English teacher? You are? Well good! I never liked you either!

Anyways...the metaphor came to mind earlier in the week. Why do the zombies always win in the movies? There's always just too many of them. That's the 2011 Tigers. They don't overwhelm you on snap one, or even on snap two. They do it with numbers. Accumulation. There's no one guy for an opponent to focus on. No "if we stop that guy, they can't beat us," weapon. The running backs, the linemen, defensive backs -- they keep coming at you in waves until you're out of ways to stop them.

Are there individual stars on this team? Sure, but backups at virtually every position have had a turn at dominating an opponent, whether it's Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue on offense, or Barkevious Mingo and Ron Brooks on defense. There's no singular player on this team that Georgia can focus on stopping.

The results this season bear it out, as LSU has consistently turned one-score first quarter leads (an average score of 7 to 1.5) into two touchdowns at the half (18-5), three after the third quarter (28-8) and four by the end of the game (38-10).

More of the Same

There are only two really good quarterbacks in the SEC. LSU faced one last week in Tyler Wilson, and they'll face the other this week in Georgia's Aaron Murray. The conference's leader in touchdowns and passer rating, Murray is an efficient, accurate passer with enough mobility to be an effective scrambler when needed -- much like his counterpart in Arkansas.

And just like the ‘Back QB, he does it by spreading the ball around. Murray has completed passes to seven or more different Georgia players in eight out of 12 games this season, and Georgia is the only other team besides Arkansas that has four different players with 30 or more catches and 300-plus yards receiving on the year. True freshman Malcolm Mitchell leads the team in yards (and his 17.12 yards-per-catch is third in the league behind Rueben Randle and Vandy's Jordan Matthews), but is actually third in receptions behind star tight end Orson Charles and fellow wideout Tavarres King. The result has been the most efficient passing game in the last five years in Athens, and that includes Matthew Stafford and A.J. Green's time between the hedges.

The offense, schematically, is a pro-style system with spread/air-raid elements, which bears familiarity to a lot of other offenses in the league, such as Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and even LSU. Mark Richt spent most of his career working under Bobby Bowden during Florida State's 1990s heyday, as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and the influence is undeniable. FSU was one of the first programs to blend the spread with the two-back set, partially because they had tailbacks like Amp Lee and Warrick Dunn and fullbacks like William Floyd and Clarence "Pooh Bear" Williams that were both adept at running and receiving.

Likewise, Georgia will use two backs and two tight ends as often as they use three and four wide receivers, with the quarterback both under the center and in the shotgun. The running game features a heavy dose of zone blocking, along with counters and the old Bowden favorite, the sprint draw. Freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell in particular excels at the stretch. Richt, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo also like to use screens to their backs in third-down, long-yardage situations.

The passing concepts will look familiar to the Tigers (and discerning fans), with Air-Raid staples like Y-cross, four verticals and smash. They also like a variant of the shallow cross known, naturally, as the FSU shallow cross. Richt details it somewhat here, noting that it was a play FSU ran up to a dozen times a game (I remember that shallow drag route to Peter Warrick being money circa 1998-99). One of the more unique features of this version of the play is the way Richt fills the void of the crossing receiver with an arrow or swing (which Richt refers to as "scat") route from the running back.

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via i109.photobucket.com

Richt loves the scat, and will have receivers run it a lot in trips formation, just like the ol' Jimbo Fisher Bubble Screen we're all so familiar with, but with the outside receivers running their own routes instead of blocking to form the bubble. Georgia doesn't throw to their running backs a ton this season, but that's probably because they use their tight ends so much.

Another Richt favorite is a variant of "Mills" known as the 6-3 post.

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Quoting the always-valued Mr. Brown:

The numbers refer to the number of steps the receiver takes: six vertically, attacking the defender's outside hip, then three quick ones at 45 degrees to the sideline (sometimes with a head turn but not necessarily), with the break to the post made at full speed on the ninth step, or the third of the "6-3."

The route is designed to be coupled with something pulling the safety from the middle of the field, like a play fake or a route from the inside receiver/tight end, similar to the Mills concept.

One of the more classic looks Georgia will run is the "bench" concept, which anybody who has played a football video game in the last 15 years has seen: outside receivers each run your basic out route while the tight end or slot receiver (if the offense is in the "open I" or three-WR I-formation) runs a post.

Here's a link to a portion of the Bulldogs' 2004 playbook, via PlaybookExchange.net. While I have no doubt the Dogs have changed a number of things since then, the core concepts of their offense are still the same. Georgia will look to establish the run first (the team run/pass split is almost exactly 60/40) and foremost behind a massive offensive line, and throw off of that.

Tight Ends and More Tight Ends

The Bulldogs will not just bring in the conference's best tight end in Charles (leads all SEC TEs with 530 yards and five touchdowns), but a solid group overall with No. 2 man Aaron White and fullback Bruce Figgins, who is actually a converted tight end. White and Figgens have just 15 combined catches on the year, but four touchdowns and the ‘Dawgs love to look for them in the redzone on play-action passes.

Charles, however, has enough speed and skill in route-running to line up in the slot and even split out wide on occasion. Wherever the matchup advantage presents itself. Though linebacker coverage has been an issue at times, LSU really has done a solid job of neutralizing some of the league's better tight ends. Chris Gragg managed just two catches last week, though one was a long third-down conversion (and in a tight game those plays can make a big difference), and other athletic receiving targets like Philip Lutzenkirchen (3 catches for 23 yards) and Brad Smelley (1 catch for 8 yards) have been held in check. Brandon Taylor is a big reason for this, as are safetymate Eric Reid and nickel/dime corners Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks, all of whom are physical enough to match up with larger guys, at least enough to give the linebackers a break every now and then. It's also helped that LSU has been able to make so many teams play catch-up, which can negate the play-action passes that most teams prefer to use with their tight ends. Either way, I'd feel a lot better about this matchup if Reid is back in the lineup, but one never knows with strained quads.

The position will be very important for LSU's running game as well, for reasons I've outlined before. Tight ends, especially using motion and the wing set (two things the Tigers love to do with their TEs) can be a major fulcrum for blocking the overhanging defender against 3-4 fronts. Especially when dealing with an athletic one like Jarvis Jones. A tight end will have a better chance of getting a hat on him in space than a fullback might on outside runs.

The Bulldog defense is led by the...let's call him easily agitated...Todd Grantham, a legitimate rising star in the defensive coaching ranks. Grantham's worked under some of the best defensive minds in the country, from Bud Foster to Nick Saban in college, and Dom Capers, Romeo Crennel and Wade Phillips in the NFL, before coming to Georgia, where his attacking 3-4 scheme has yielded some big results. It's probably the biggest reason behind the big rebound this season, putting up numbers just behind LSU and Bama in the major defensive categories, and leading the league in tackles for loss and forced fumbles.

It is more of a classic 3-4 (Alabama's defense will use four down linemen as much or more often than three), with three big two-gap lineman (average weight, 318 pounds per man, and top backup Kwame Geathers goes 6-6, 350) and linebackers that can engage and shed blockers when they have to. On the back end, the Bulldog secondary looks reminiscent of some of the units they had under Brian Van Gorder in the early part of the last decade, back in the days of safeties like Thomas Davis, Sean Jones and Greg Blue. Athletic, big (three starters north of 215 pounds), defenders that excel in zone coverage by flying to the ball and laying the lumber. Corners Brandon Boykin (who sees time on offense) and Sanders Cummings have a combined 22 pass break-ups, and free safety Bacarri Rambo has picked off a league-high seven passes this season.

Grantham wants to create confusion pre-snap, and will move his players around before bring pressure from odd angles with a lot of zone coverage behind them. Jones is the main focal point. He's more of a true linebacker than typical 3-4 outside guys (for instance, Courtney Upshaw would be a DE on most 4-3 teams), but he's been an explosive player this season with 13.5 sacks and another six tackles for loss. He will line up in multiple spots on either side of the offense, and loop into different gaps on blitzes in order to find a clear lane. Running right at the A-gaps is always the best solution with this sort of defense, but for that to work P.J. Lonergan is going to have to handle all 350 pounds of nose guard John Jenkins, at least well enough to allow LSU's guards to get down to the next level.

Special Teams

It's funny, coming into this season this would not have been an area I would have picked LSU to have a clear edge. Drew Butler and Blair Walsh were one of the best punter/kicker combinations in the country last season, and Brandon Boykin has been a dangerous kick and punt returner his entire career in Athens.

But while Butler has still been only down slightly (a 43-yard average with 15 dropped inside the 20 is still pretty good but still below Butler's previous numbers), Walsh's accuracy has dropped 25 percent from last season, and his numbers from beyond 30 yards 11 of 14 a year ago to just 14 out of 25 attempts this season. Boykin is still looking for his first return touchdown of the season. On top of that, Georgia is currently allowing 14.2 yards per punt return and 23.7 yards per kickoff, the 11th and 12th-place averages in the SEC, respectively.

Do NOT Expect

Rolling Over

It goes without saying that Georgia's coming here to win a game, and it's not like they have anything to lose here. Lose, whatever, you go home 10-3, a season any fan base could (and should) be proud of, with Richt's job security settled for a while. Win, and you not only secure Georgia's 13th SEC title, but a spot in the Sugar Bowl (possibly making the SEC the first conference to ever put three teams in the BCS), the undying admiration of the state of Alabama and of anybody rooting for complete chaos in the national title picture. Everything to gain, nothing to lose really.

Not that this is news to the readers of this site. We've all come into this game with our eyes open, aware just of what is at stake. We might have delusional optimism, but that doesn't mean we're unrealistic. The good news is, that this team's MO has been showing up week after week ready to dominate and play at their best on the biggest stages. I don't see that changing on Saturday.

Don’t forget to show support for your favorite coach by voting him as the 2011 Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year at www.coachoftheyear.com

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